Why Good Societies Are Pessimistic

Why Good Societies Are Pessimistic

It might be normal to imagine that a good
society would be one in which a majority of people held optimistic views about themselves,
their fellow citizens and their prospects for their collective futures. But, in fact,
quite the opposite appears to be true: deep pessimism seems a key ingredient for the maintenance
of any good society. At the core of pessimism is the idea that everyone, however outwardly
normal, is severely flawed: short-term, blinkered, vengeful, sentimental and prone to reckless
anger, fear, delusion and passion. We’re mad monkeys, with a few extra neurones. From
a brutal acceptance of this dark starting-point, there can flow a range of measures that together
will make for exceptionally wise, calm and reasonable societies. Let’s consider a few:
In an ideally pessimistic society, rather boring and extremely steady politicians are
the norm. No one believes the wilder utopian promises of firebrand leaders. The electorate
is simply far too pessimistic to trust in easy, rapid solutions to any of the nation’s
substantial problems. Dramatic promises at the stump are immediately discounted with
a wry, dismissive shrug. Because pessimists know just how flawed any one individual can
be, the ideal pessimistic society invests heavily in strong, slow-moving, independent
institutions that prevent too much power from ever falling into the hands of a single person.
Furthermore, these institutions are insulated from the fluctuations of public opinion – which,
pessimistically, are seen as being hugely prone to hysteria and overreaction. In the
ideal pessimistic society, there won’t be much appetite for singling out any particular
group or class of people for blame. Our troubles, the electorate sadly admit, are caused mainly
by big impersonal, historical forces – rather than by a few people who are easy to target
and cathartically hate. Because they assume that it’s natural to have rather dangerous
appetites and desires, the citizens of a pessimistic society willingly put quite a lot of restraints
on themselves, defining freedom not as the ability to do whatever they want at any point,
but as the liberty to act in accordance with their wisest, most reasonable selves (which
only appear every now and then). They therefore don’t see it as any particular loss of freedom
to be gently nudged away from blowing their savings, overeating, doing no exercise, ruining
their relationships or developing addictions. They accept a paternalistic society as the
natural price for limiting their own self-destructive tendencies. Pessimistic societies don’t
have much time for celebrity culture, for they are dubious about whether anyone much
deserves to be idolised: they know that from close up, we’re all a bit of a mess. And
they’re not shocked by revelations of chaotic private lives, since this is assumed to be
the norm. Spare energy is directed more towards forgiveness rather than adulation followed
by denigration. In pessimistic societies, the education system is elaborate, broad,
ambitious and very well resourced; citizens assume that the raw human mind needs a huge
amount of structured, targeted help in order to cope with life’s challenges. The curriculum
isn’t merely focused on technical skills though; there is a lot of help around emotional
issues too – which, it’s acknowledged, are at the root of so many of our tragedies.
Because they acknowledge that we’re all fragile, easily irked creatures, pessimistic
societies place great emphasis on creating quietly uplifting and beautiful communal environments.
Cities are marked by elegance, simplicity, rationality and harmony. A stridently ugly
tower block, a depressingly chaotic airport, a squalid railway station – they darkly
admit – could be enough to drive someone to despair. The rich have always recognized
this for themselves; a pessimistic society merely differs in regarding this as a universal
truth. In optimistic societies, there are constant claims that everyone can be exceptional
and, one day, awe-inspiringly successful. The charms and rewards of life are therefore
fundamentally geared towards those who make it to the top. The best restaurants are superb,
the private hospitals are outstanding, the most expensive schools magnificent, the richest
residential areas delightful, the taxes for the rich very low. But, naively, such societies
forget that, by statistical inevitability, most people are actually not going to be successful
at all. So in the pessimistic society, mediocrity and relative failure are assumed to be the
norm and the goal of government is understood to be that of rendering an average life (that
is, the life most people will actually lead) as attractive as possible. Public housing,
state schools, public hospitals and transportation are all superb, because it’s assumed (with
extreme realism) that we’re almost all going to be relying on them. By following such pessimistic
dictates, the profound consequence will be a society where – paradoxically – there
will be rather a lot to be cheerful about – though, of course, the wary, gloomy and
wise citizenry would never quite dare to put it like that. At The School of Life we believe in developing emotional intelligence. To that end we’ve also created a whole range of products to support that growth. Find out more at the link on the screen now.

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100 thoughts on “Why Good Societies Are Pessimistic”

  • I got to disagree, a pessimistic society, in my point of view, will see flaws and wont do anything about it, once they dont see a better income from it. (Sorry if I've written something wrong)

  • It is a true honour to be the First to comment this video. God, I've been waiting my whole life for this moment! I want to thank my mother for giving birth to me, my father for being the reason my mother gave birth to me and most of all, I want to thank myself for being so fabulous.

  • What a delightfully elaborate support for Marxism. Of course to live in what you guys consider a "good society", people should do a lot of hard work to convince themselves that being miserable is ok. For me, this video is nothing but doublethink.

  • I think the video conveniently overlooks that utopian visions generally contrast their imagined future with a very pessimistic view of the present. Take Marxism, which promises an incredible payoff, but usually tends to give a view of the present as a dog eat dog jungle of competing corporations destined to become one huge corporation if no one acts if in a capitalist/ mixed economy. In Marxist countries, however, the pessimism is still there, just stating that everyone has to endure decades, even generations of hardship in order to unmake the capitalist system. I think it would be better to say utopian political views denigrate the present in order to get people to believe the effort needed to get to the promised future is worth it. A utopian society generally has to promise a massive change in order to make its future contrast the present. If people believe everything is pretty good in the present then why would they be willing to put in the effort for that massive change?

  • For as many things as I admire America for, I think many of its problems come from an overly optimistic attitude – a flawed assumption that people will behave correctly when left to their own devices. For example, gerrymandering I think comes from an overly optimistic view that politicians will draw district boundaries in a fair way. Most other democracies have independent commissions that draw them, because they recognize the self-interest of politicians will undermine the process.

  • I remembered a caricature I've once seen, of an incredibly cute little puppy. He escapes from home where he was being looked after by humans. He finally wants to be free in nature and he is so full of hope! So he runs away , walks for hours in the woods and finally finds another animal, a wolf, and says:

    – Excuse me brother, could you tell me where I can find the bowls filled with food in here?

    Poor thing, he won't survive a day..

    The same with us as societies of course. I am not saying that we won't find goodness and generosity in the world. But always keeping in mind also the worst, helps you to be prepared at all times and makes you value goodness even more, whenever you find it.

    And talking about that puppy's freedom, what I loved the most from this lesson is the fact that the people from a pessimistic society define freedom " not as the ability to do whatever they want at any point, but as the liberty to act in accordance with their wisest, most reasonable selves (which only appear every now and then)".

    Here is a little list that may help if you find this way of seeing the world consoling:

    1. There is a wonderful speech by Alain de Botton called Pessimism. I have heard it several times, it's full of wisdom and it's very funny as always.

    2. If you search on google for " BBC The advantages of pessimism" you will find another great speech by Alain. Just 10 minutes. But you'll learn a lot. I especially love this part where he talks about Blaise Pascal' s book Pensees:

    "In seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion. "Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself," he says. Misery is the norm, he states: "If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it." And we have to face the desperate facts of our situation head on. "Man's greatness," he writes, "comes from knowing he is wretched."

    3. Barbara Ehrenreich gave a speech at The School of Life on Optimism. That's on youtube too.

    Here is the description of the speech.

    "Far from making us happier, she argues that undue optimism and a fear of giving bad news sowed the seeds for the banking crisis – and that an insistence on being cheerful actually leads toward a lonely focus inwards and to political apathy.
    Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of fourteen best selling books. "

    She also has a book called:
    "Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled American and the World"

    4. Talking about expectations , there is a great documentary by Alain called " Seneca on Anger". There is a wonderful scene there where Alain is trying to teach a van driver to be more pessimistic. It is so funny and wise. Don't miss it!

  • Sounds like a quick fix solution to me. If only the world was like _ this video. Here are the features of the video. Buy now and your life will be improved, empowered, insert benefits here _. I am just glad our society allows every idea to be measured and critically thought through. Sure in a _ (utopian) version of anything. The on paper sounds good to me like this. Sure if some generalization net could capture us all then this would happen. But the bloody battle in between. The facts are society is never as it is on paper. Look at (about to get some hate, trigger warning.) But here we go. Communism on paper we are all equal and everything is hunky doory. No one has to work and every luxury is met for all people. Society continues to be great but no one is loved less or more we are all one hive of interchangeable gears in a machine. And someone has to lead and now we have Stalin and we all work and the farmers that make our food have more food so kill them. Oh no this artist's art moved me but my own art or other people's art doesn't have the same emotion. So kill this artist for creating a hierarchy and being better. Again we are all equal until no one is equal. Look at progressivism we have literal segregation. __ (insert group type) only space. I guess we are losing the ability to question ideas and critically decide if something is bad or good. To the point we lost our voice. The majority bows to the smaller group (I would use minority but minority also is associated with race.) Beautiful words on paper until riding a bike with no handle bars turns. To ruling the world with a microphone. Then we all lose when the missiles guided by satellite. But by all means create the utopian just remember the free exchange of ideas is only silenced at gun point. (Gun taking the place for any item/object/matter/nonmatter/substance that is fashioned in the purpose of ending life.)

  • So, I'm having trouble understanding how this all fits together. For instance, many Turkish cities are a total mess (not elegant, certainly not harmonious) and they put faith into leaders when ever possible, but I can't exactly see that as an optimistic society.
    Also, Germany seems rather pessimistic now a days, but when it comes to mass migration from radically different societies, they suddenly shut off their pessimism and declare that this is going to be awesome, though anyone with a logical neuron in their brain would be deeply pessimistic.

    So, if America is optimistic in regards to its tax system and public institutions, why does it have a system of good governance, a long standing constitution. Well, then again, if we were to create a constitution from scratch at this current moment, I doubt it'd be all that good….

  • Don't agree with this one. By the theory of Walter Wink, power hierarchy came from the idea that humans are naturally evil, and thus they need to be controlled and guided to. This provokes a system of punishments and rewards that it is extremely predjuicial.

  • makes no sense. its as if somebody tried to find arguments to his middle school group discussion. as a result thats a weak and flawed mess of arguments without any backbone to support. kinda makes sense but not really.

  • I think the argument here is ambitious, but i can't seem to get over the fact that it equates pessimism, only, with rationality.

  • I've got a simple worldview, i'm never gonna make it big or anything, and most likely, in the grand scale of history, will be another footnote at best, so i'll just live a life that makes me happy and enjoy it, but even if life is meaningless that doesn't mean to ignore everyone, i don't care i'm unimportant, i can still help people have a good life.

  • Would the Cynicism of the likes of Diogenes be somewhere on this Pessimism scale? It seems like many of the things you mention here he would agree with, if I may be so bold to speak for him.

  • When I was listening to this it reminded of Toulouse (France) and how the French live ( maybe not in very big cities but in medium to small cities/towns).

  • Consider the following :Pessimism and optimism are both ignorant. Pessimism devalues humanity, it's a tragic philosophy that attempts to convince the individual that he is a slave to material universe, that he is simply a cog in the machine with no choice, he must accept his destiny and fate as a thing moving through the motions and influences of the laws of the Universe. A thing is not self conscious, but humans are self conscious because they are beyond a thing, they are a living self-conscious thing in the universe capable of choosing his own destiny or the destiny of the Universe. Optimistic, is a positive perspective steming from such self conscious. It is this self consciousness that validates humanity as being "special" somewhat different. However, optimistic is ignorant that it is usually naive and ignores the complexity of the limitations of self-consciousness. Essentially, both pessimism and optimism de value or over value the universe, optimism attempts to convince the human that there are no problems in the world, blissfully and willingly delusional. In the middle of these extremes is critical thinking. Criticism has been attached to negative connections, but it is neither negative or positive, it is neutral. True critical thinking takes account of all accounts, that we are cogs in the universe, but we are self conscious cogs with the power to choose to go against the universe or go with the universe. Such thinking can lead to confusion, but also goodness because it doesn't allow itself to be extremely distorted. It is forever true though, positive thinking will always be advantagous over negative thinking hence although optimism is naive, it is positive and rejuvenating. If leaders or society were critically optimistic people, much good would be done as they would not allow themselves to be so delusional but they would be motivated by finding something better. Pessimistic people have no motivation, they simply allow things to happen as if they have no part to play in. This video combines ideally pessimistic, but that in itself is a delusion, idealism, although unrealistic is positive by nature. Pessimism essentially dehumanising, it does not acknowledge the true essence of humanity, it's complexity, one of which is the ability to be motivated by goodness, to even recognise good. Animals do not recognise goodness, but humans do because humanity is moral by nature, we recognise wrong from right, goodness from evil.

  • People who believe this video is about the UK are in absolute denial. It does accurately depict the rest of northwestern Europe and northern (nordic) Europe though.

  • Hi School of Life! can you suggest some readings on this topic? it would be very much appreciated! Thank you 🙂

  • Guess places like the US (a very optimistic successful country which ranks as one of the most developed in the world and is the sole Super Power) and places like Venezuela (a very pessimistic but crumbling country which has the highest murder rate and inflation rate in the world) are the exceptions to this?

  • While I agree with you on most points that you've made… I still believe that power should be kept by the people, mediocre or not, and that the power of change should rest in their hands… The government has a responsibility to the nation, and thus to the people, to help educate and care for our basic needs inorder to have more intelligent balanced individuals that will help to increase the overall success of the nation. The government should rely on us and we should trust our government to help us when we are in need Because we the people are the force behind our governing institution.

  • I strongly disagree about the fact that 'good societies' prefer a paternalistic government. Bad societies do so themselves, and more commonly than their counterparts. If you take a look at South America, where I live, most of our governments are extremely paternalistic (and full of shit as well). People choose them by the same reason mentioned on the video: they're optimistic and believe in easy solutions. I guess the definition of freedom was also inverted. "Good societies" believe in the preservation of free will; just take a look at most countries who don't take prohibition as a measure of control. Here in South America (not all countries, that's true) just now people are starting to take seriously issues such as abortion, gay rights, gender equality and discriminalization of drugs. We are sieged by authoritarian governments with promises and bad intentions.

  • That's why Philippines is still a third world country because most people here are contented and happy with their mediocre lives… 😔 they are very optimistic people with a mentality of 'bahala na' (they leave their fate up to Bathala or God)

  • Germany. We do not understand what brings the other people to say that everything is fine and nice when we come to the US. An "this is okay" from a German is probably equivalent to the highest of compliments Americans give.

  • In Germany things are mostly seen like they are (or a bit worse) so there is always room for improvement and that is what is done. The highest goal for a German to live in an environment of equivalence, we do not like to be better than our neighbors and friends.

  • Sounds very European to me. USA and Canada are the evolution of European Societies; need improvements though.

  • too much rain, cloudy days and ultra high tax societies make any human being depressed and pessimistic! No where to run. There´s no chaos because governments are smart enough to allow the citizens with minimum everything, but they have to fight 40 hours a week to have it. Government is happy and people conformed to give their lives to serve as fuel to the government machine.

  • This has little to do with pessimism. You are just using different words for what is know as socialistic and capitalistic societies and arguing that most people are better off living in a more socialistic society. I disagree deeply with such statement.

  • yes, capitalism is amazing and omnipotent, every country should copy the western world. Thats why in japan now 30,000 people kill themselves a year, after being forced to embrace it by the US even though it is now one of the wealthiest nations in the world. westernised societies are depressed.

  • I'm too pessimistic to believe in such medling of people's personal lives with super structured education and overly reaching government policies

  • That's funny how wrong Alan is on this one. The institution blocked Bernie from potus. The American two party duopoly, the electoral college . That's just a few examples .

  • This is an interesting idea… my understanding is that pessimists are more realistic than your average optimist, Winston Churchill, famous for having depression, coining the term the Black Dog, successfully "lead" Britain through the 2nd world war, but I think the video needs to back up it's claims with reasons behind it's statements… well more so… So in the words of the notorious Pauline Hanson: "Please Explain".

  • You don't have to redefine freedom. Just pesamistically admits that restricting freedom is prudent for building a good life.

  • But it's an assumption to assume that pessimists have this quality of thoughts. Comparing literal meaning of the word and the actions presented in the video, it's irrelevant.

  • Not true, pessimism would fault those who can't change based on their flaws. Maybe even give a bad representation of what part of ourselves isn't compatible. Your pessimistic society already exists and fails to compensate for the entire community.

  • Hi, this is Denmark. You're right. We have "the law of Jante".
    Except, we call this sort of thing "realism".

  • Is this really about pessimism vs optimism though ? I feel like what this video is truly describing is realism, or objectivity…

  • Understanding harsh truths in life, being more realistic and coping with it to such an extent that you can laugh at it when something unrealistic is promised is a key to a steady and decent life.

  • This reads like a high school level term paper. For example:

    "Pessimistic societies would not single out any one group of people for blame."

    Pure conjecture. This channel just picks out phrases that will sound good to a YouTube audience and applies them to whatever philosophy it feels like.

  • The civic leaders of my hometown could use more pessimism. They keep saying everything's great when everything's going to hell. Ironically, things only change for the worse when you live in a world of optimism.

  • there is such a things as intelligent optimism and stupid pessimism. all of these things seem to be borne out of intelligence and not a dim worldview! and honestly what's the point of having so many things to be cheerful about if you don't have the ability to appreciate them? beauty isn't inherently beautiful, it's only beautiful because we perceive it as such 🙂

  • Remember when the Russian proletariat was extremely optimistic back in the day? That utopia worked well, didn't it. You can never trust any single person on Earth with all the power.

  • This describes the city I live in. The pessimism is crippling, they give up pleasure, ambition, happiness and joy to maintain this city. The people here force themselves to be happy 24/7. Meanwhile you can see them in pain through their smiles , it's nuts.the city is Reno, NV

  • My sisters friends moved here. Then eventually they ran out of the city and left every thing in their apartments. Pessimistic cities are not good.

  • An optimist believes in opportunities but takes unnecessary risks. A pessimist protects their current standing but fails to grow.
    A realist can maximize the positive outcomes of both pessimism and optimism while minimizing the pitfalls of either. A realist always changes his outlook to match the data.

  • This video says that a good society is formed by pessimistic people who don’t idolize people and don’t have a “celebrity culture” but in the Book of Life there is an article about a good kind of patriotism that is also supposed to form a good society and it encourages celebrity culture.Can somebody please explain this?

  • Optimists are frequently disappointed when reality doesnt fit their views.. but pessimists are not because we are prepared for the worst and when the worst doesnt happen we are happiest

  • In a truly pessimistic social order, no one would ever trust the nation-state to deliver all the services described in this video – the political class is far too easily corrupted with bribes (sorry… "campaign contributions") by the few who make it to the top to ever give a sh-t about what life is like for all the ordinary "citizens" (read: slaves) as the regular "citizens" don't have anything to offer to compete with the resources of the wealthy…

  • This is wrong. Pessimism isn't the word it's being realistic. There's a fine line between being pessimistic and realistic and the most happy societies are realist, not pessimist. Get your facts together

  • What is the prospect that people who are pessimistic about their ability to bring about change in society will share a proposal for how to promote sustainability and end poverty?

    If we charge fees to industries that put pollution or deplete natural resources, we will give incentive to reduce impacts on the environment and develop sustainable business models. Economists would call this an efficient way to account for externalities.

    If we share proceeds from environmental impact fees to all people, we will end poverty. Making the policy global will ensure that industries do not simply flee to the more lax jurisdictions.

    A system of random polls could show whether more people want MORE or LESS of this or that kind of impact on the environment. We may find that about half of the people want to see 5% reduction per year, or more, of carbon emissions, while about half want to see 5% reduction per year, or less (or some amount of increase). Policy and actual conditions should match what average opinion says is about right. Raise fees (or adjust the number of permits offered at auction) to bring the reality into line with what people want. We would have a true democracy.

    Biological Model for Politics and Economics


  • this is such a classic stupid English philosophy. you need a balance. and research has shown that believing you can do things make you able to do it. I have found that in my own life that pessimism has really held me back from achieving a lot and this video has not been backed by science. this is where philosophy needs to combine with science and psychological studies.

  • This so true, if you go to Africa and the Caribbean everyone is smiley and optimistic. If you go to Northern Europe everyone is sooo pessimistic.