Wired For Pessimism

“Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

― Dr. Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence

To call someone pessimistic is often seen as a criticism.  But the reality is that pessimistic neural pathways served an important evolutionary purpose. Back in the hunter gatherer days of our ancestors, humans faced regular existential threats  from wild animals, rival tribes and  starvation it paid to look out for worst case scenarios as excessive optimism was more likely to create existential threats than in the modern world . The answer back then to the question  ‘What’s the worst that could happen ?’ was much worse  than the reality that ,thankfully,  most of us  face today.

That said, while human existence has , at least on average, become less dangerous there is still a continued value to anticipating and recognising situations that represent a danger to our well being even those dangers may look very different in the modern context. Excessive optimism may lead us to recklessness in behaviours which can impact on our health, relationships and financial security .

This is not to advocate a state of exaggerated or  perma pessimism. Studies have shown optimists experience healthier stress levels and a higher perception of life satisfaction while pessimists tend to experience greater stress and reduced well being. This illustrates  how the subconscious part of our mind,while seeking to protect us, does not always produce an optimal response and  can in fact undermine it’s very purpose. 

Of course, the ideal is that we should make an assessment of each situation which is neither excessively optimistic nor excessively pessimistic but simply a balanced view of the probable and possible outcomes. From there we can formulate the best response on the information available.


Can this ideal state of mind be consistently achieved ? While at one time personality was thought to be genetically fixed, modern neuroscience has revealed the concept of neuroplasticity: the ability to rewire our brain and in doing so to alter our attitudes and behaviours.

So much of the work I undertake as a performance coach and hypnotherapist stems from addressing clients’ perceptions of reality which have been exaggerated and misdirected  by life  experiences.Identifying and addressing  this programming at a conscious and subconscious level is the path to the calm, balanced state of mind which leads to the best version of ourselves, the best decisions and the best outcomes for our lives.

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