Pessimism is better than optimism

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No other animal, or organism, has wreaked more havoc on humans than other humans. Not even the so-called Black Plague, Covid-19, or other pestilences have been crueler on humans than people themselves.

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The established — or received — wisdom the world is over is that it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic. In other words, we are often advised by wizened heads that we should always choose optimism over pessimism.

In fact, my friend Mohamed Hersi, the past Chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, flauntingly calls himself “Mr Optimist”.

He pens off his long social media posts with this aphorism – “I always choose to be an optimist”.

Though admirable, this disposition is a logical and often costly miscalculation. It sounds sweet and sappy, but it’s a lie of the heart over the mind. Instead, I urge you to choose pessimism over optimism. That is, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

When I say prepare for the worst, I mean that you must expect the worst to happen. Whatever you hope for is irrelevant because hope has never been a strategy for anything. Yes, they say hope springs eternal. But that statement is born of the unlettered mind of the child, not an adult who has clocked a few years on planet Earth.

Anyone of reasonable maturity – even a simpleton with an uneducated noggin – knows the world is a cruel place. And those who don’t usually end up living a Hobbesian existence where life is “nasty, brutish and short”. 


Naiveté, or the inability to grow up, is usually costly to such folks. Don’t leap into a dark void without looking.

Human existence is a struggle against two forces — nature and fellow humans. Of all the creatures on the earth, humans are the cruelest.

No other animal, or organism, has wreaked more havoc on humans than other humans. Not even the so-called Black Plague, Covid-19, or other pestilences have been crueler on humans than people themselves.

The animals of the wild, such as the vaunted lion, only kill when hungry. But humans hunt other humans for pleasure and sport. If you doubt me, read the history of the Islamic Jihads or of the Crusades of Christendom. Humans love to pillage one another. Think of the two so-called “world wars”. Then think of the ravages of enslavement, colonisation and globalisation.

The human fund of knowledge knows all this terrible history and more. Here in Kenya, think of the cruelty of domestic and gender-based violence where women are killed, raped and brutalised by men with impunity. Don’t forget the economic privation of millions of citizens in different parts of the country, including in places like Kibera in Nairobi.

Perhaps one can say that it’s because the planet is so cruel that we need to hear good news, even if it’s a lie. The lie soothes us and lowers our blood pressure and stress. It’s a form of self-medication against life’s many vagaries. It buffers us against the cold bitter truth. It prevents us from falling into the pit of hopelessness. 

Irrational exuberance 

Optimism often serves as a palliative. It’s like irrational exuberance. You saw it during the World Cup. You are brought to the edge of hope by exuberance, even though deep inside you know your hopes will be crushed. Optimism allows you the thrill of the moment.

It keeps you hooked to a dream, however unrealistic. That’s why I think religions with a narrative about the afterlife are more popular. Never mind that no one went to the “afterlife” and came back to report to us what they saw, and experienced there.

Yet we cling onto that mirage with our faith and hope, forever optimistic. I grant the hope of an “afterlife” may make some behave better on earth.

There’s a debate as to which category of people is more successful between optimists and pessimists. My sense is that the globe is inhabited by more of the latter than the former. If there was a chip to download people’s thoughts, we would find more disturbing thoughts than we care to admit. 

Apprehend danger 

We are hardwired to apprehend danger, not to celebrate the future. In that sense, we are usually pessimistic. But we want to project an image of hope.

That’s why many of us offer fake smiles when we meet other people. If you greet someone, “How are you?” the usual canned answer is, “I am OK.” Usually, that’s a bold-faced lie. Virtually, no one says, “I feel crappy.”

In teaching life’s lessons, I urge that we deliver this message to our young – that the planet is an insensitive, cruel place. That if the youth hope to make our planet a better place, they had better start by accepting the reality of that cruelty and then working to reverse it. Let’s not be Pollyannaish. 

Let’s not lure our children into a false sense of security. If we do so, they won’t be well-adjusted. Let’s allow them to be wide-eyed. Let’s tell our girls not to trust men – strangers, or relatives, for we know what can happen.

Let’s prepare pessimists so that optimism doesn’t disable them.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.


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