Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Bewitched and Ben Franklin

I know some people who appear to be unrelentingly positive, seeing the 3/4s empty glass as 1/4 full. I appreciate those people, as long as they don’t seem to be wearing rose-colored glasses.

I was commenting on someone’s blog – more on that anon – and I was reminded of one of those peculiar childhood memories that, I believe, colors my view of the world to this day.

It was an episode of the 1960s television program Bewitched, starring Elizabeth Montgomery.

I recall very little about the particulars, actually. Couldn’t tell you which Darrin was in it, Dick York or Dick Sargent. We had a black and white TV, so I couldn’t tell you if it were broadcast in color. Don’t even particularly remember the plot.

I DO know, though, that Benjamin Franklin appeared, for some reason. His character was offering up all sorts of aphorisms. One was that he always going through life expecting negative outcomes, so that when something positive happened, he would be pleasantly surprised. It was a punchline that was supposed to be funny – the canned laughter told me that – but, to me, it made SENSE. (The exact quote from the show, according to here: “I’m more optimistic than pessimistic. Or perhaps I’m an optimistic pessimist — prepare for the worst, but when the very worst doesn’t happen, I’m pleasantly surprised.”)

Last month, in her V is for Visualization post, Meryl at Departing the Text wrote:

Studies suggest…that optimistic affirmations designed to lift one’s mood, often achieve the opposite effect.

…The Power of Negative Thinking essayist, Oliver Burkeman suggests that there is an alternative approach to help us find that sometimes elusive (holiday) cheer: “…both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier.”

According to Burkeman, Albert Ellis (a New York psychotherapist) rediscovered this key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: “the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.”

Stoics called this worst-case scenario therapy “the premeditation of evils” and they believed that doing this would remove the anxiety “THE FUTURE” relayed. According to Burkeman, modern psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy which she terms “defensive pessimism.”

Burkeman further posits that: “The ultimate value of the ‘negative path’ may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.”

“Defensive pessimism” – that sounds about the right description of my philosophy. On the other hand, I think that worrying is highly overrated.

This begs the question: was Ben Franklin portrayed accurately in a sitcom a half century ago? This quote is attributed to him, according to several sources: “I’d rather be a pessimist because then I can only be pleasantly surprised.” So, kinda sorta, yeah.

6 thoughts on “Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Bewitched and Ben Franklin”

  1. One of theories on the development of social psychology is that at some point we weeded out the extreme ends of the spectrum of behaviour – those desperately for new experiences no matter how dangerous and those who feared the new so much that they wouldn’t set foot out of the door. What was left was a society genetically programmed to be ready to try new things, but with enough caution to stay reasonably safe. But there is a spectrum with base jumpers at one end, for example, and stamp collectors at the other. And I suppose the same could be true of optimism and pessimism with people at the end that suits them best.


  2. There is actually a third way: live in the “now.” (Not that I’m anywhere near achieving that myself, but I’m working on it.)

    As far as Ben Franklin: read his autobiography. It’s short. I did and he didn’t seem either optimistic or pessimistic. He seemed optimistic that he could always improve himself and optimistic that there was always fun and interesting around.


  3. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this but I vaguely remember that show! I am honored and flattered to be mentioned and thank you for the link to my post. Regarding Ben Franklin, my understanding is that he was “colorful” at best and I while I am somewhat surprised that “Bewitched” may have gotten it right, I am not surprised to hear he may have actually uttered these words. Personally, I find I teeter between half-empty and half-full visions of the world and have found when I dread something, I AM usually pleasantly surprised. Thanks again and have a great weekend.


  4. I like that quote, and I think it sums up my behavior as well. I’m a lot happier these days prepared for the worst and hoping for the best than when I assumed things would turn out for the better yet didn’t.


  5. I also was taken with that episode of Bewitched (when it was originally aired) and what the Franklin character had to say.


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