The Spectrum of Optimism and Pessimism

At one end you have the pure optimist. He thinks everything is great, will always be great, and sees all negativity as a character flaw. Part is rooted in ego: he’s so confident in himself that he can’t fathom anything going wrong.

Then there are extremely optimistic people who accept that bad things occasionally happen to other people. They read about bad news with a detached sense of fascination, but view their own future as clear sailing and can’t imagine anything different.

Next are the optimists who are capable of being skeptical of other peoples’ optimism. They view their future as pristine but possess a low-grade BS detector, sensing when optimism is actually a sales pitch.

One rung down are the optimists who are wholly confident in themselves but equally pessimistic about others. They’re easy to mistake for pessimists, but they actually view their own futures as flawless.

Then there’s a special breed: The optimist who views everyone’s future as bleak only because a few things, or a few people, stand in the way. They’re single-issue pessimists who would otherwise be optimistic about themselves and almost all other people. They’re miserable, because a perfect world seems so close yet so far away.

Next are people who are pessimistic with their words but optimistic with their actions. They’re attracted to pessimism because it’s intellectually seductive and gets people’s attention. But their investment portfolios are clearly set up for a world where things get better. Many pundits fall into this category.

In the middle we have what I call reasonable optimists: those who acknowledge that history is a constant chain of problems and disappointments and setbacks, but who remain optimistic because they know setbacks don’t prevent eventual progress. They sound like hypocrites and flip-floppers, but often they’re just looking further ahead than other people.

Then come the probabilists. They know progress is likely but couch everything as a matter of playing the odds. “I am not an optimist,” Hans Rosling once said. “I’m a very serious possibilist.”

Now we get into closet pessimists: Those who view historical progress as a one-off fluke, but think low growth or stagnation is more likely in the future. They’re proud of what we’ve accomplished but doubt it can continue.

Further down come the skeptics. They don’t disagree that progress is possible, even likely. But they have such a high bar for proving it that only hindsight observations are convincing – and even then, the question whether the data is accurate, or if there’s something else we’re not looking at. They’re nice people but torture themselves in this state, because they know progress is occurring but rather than enjoy it then fight to deny it.

Then we get into the first tier of true pessimists. They know the world will get better, things will improve, business will become more productive – but they don’t think they personally will be part of the progress.

Next are those who view progress as only benefiting small groups of people while the well-being of the majority stagnates or declines as they are exploited by a small group of winners. (Perhaps the most reasonable group of pessimists).

A level down are those who quietly hope for decline, usually to benefit their investments. They often say things like “I hope my forecast isn’t right” but nothing makes them happier than signs of a new recession, financial crisis, or rise in inflation.

Soon you get into some real gloom: people who think evidence of past progress is misleading, incomplete, or manipulated to paint a rosy picture, and that reality is life is as hard and inefficient today as it’s been for a while and will stay that way in the future.

Then come the cynics, who view anyone promoting progress as being secretly motivated by power and fueled by corruption.

And at last come the pure pessimists. He thinks everything is terrible, will always be terrible, and sees all positivity as a character flaw. Part is rooted in ego: he has so little confidence in himself that he can’t fathom anything going right. He’s the polar opposite of the pure optimist, and just as detached from reality.