Don't Worry, Be Grumpy

Jim Dees

Jim Dees

Contributing Editor

Jim Dees is a writer and longtime host of Thacker Mountain Radio. He is the author of “The Statue and the Fury – A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails” (Nautilus Press).

The Christmas tree is fish habitat and your New Year’s resolutions lie strewn about, freshly broken and forgotten like a lost bet – so where does that leave us? We’re staring down a clean slate; sparkling new twelve months that represent possibilities of renewal, recharge, and reboot. The new year can be a fresh start and perhaps an occasion to renounce sloth and over-indulgence… or not.

The past year ground to a stinky halt leaving a stench of foul air and soiled feelings. In the world of politics and culture, it seemed every day brought worsening headlines of transgressions and sexual harassment. Guns and violence added more tragedy and heartache. Even sports became controversial as fans clicked off pro football (some of us peeked at the Saints) because millionaire players fell to their knees without being hit.

By the end of 2017, it seemed every corner of daily life was tainted by scandal, sordid behavior or simple bad taste. The year didn’t so much end as it piled up like a multi-car crash. With such a national funk, how is one to look toward the new year with any sort of optimism? To say ‘it can’t get any worse’ rings hollow and, as we note with chagrin, is simply not true. It can – and probably will – get worse.

Optimism seems a luxury we can ill afford but what’s the alternative? Bummed Out Bob? Debbie Downer? No one wants to walk around fearing the worst, wearing our dread like a badge, but 2017 set the bar so low for human conduct, it is frightening to contemplate what bottom-feeding events await in this new year.

Psychologists define happiness as “being moderately happy most of the time.” Talk about a low bar! That modest metric leaves plenty of room for being moderately angry the rest of the time.

We are taught to be optimistic but pessimism is standing on our other shoulder whispering the real news: “If you’re prepared for the worst, you can’t be disappointed. If you feel optimistic, it’s hard to be pleasantly surprised.”

Some of us are grumps by nature. The ‘I’m-not-happy-unless-I’m-ticked-off’ crowd. These are people who eat their own pancreas for lunch. Their only scenario is the worst case. Then there are “cautious optimists” who don’t want to give themselves over completely to optimism so they cut it with caution, hedging their bets.

Perhaps the most optimistic of all optimistic rituals that occurs in January is the idea that you can lose weight. Each year, fitness centers do increased business the first couple of weeks of January. Optimism spreads like crack smoke and reality is fogged in. By February, the couch potatoes are back home and it’s just the hard bodies puffing away in unison. Throw in the sweaty towel and pass the guacamole.

An article in Psychology Today reports on a 2007 diet study done at UCLA and it’s a gut punch. Scientists found that, “within four to five years, two-thirds of dieters gained back more weight than they initially lost.” Ouch.

And yet, every January hope returns like exercise TV infomercials. We still believe that somehow, some way, those pounds are just going to evaporate rather than migrate to our hips. Last month’s egg nog has hitched a ride on your belly like a barnacle affixing itself to a tall ship.

The Psychology Today article also mentions what is called “defensive pessimism.” This involves imagining everything that could go wrong in the future so you can be emotionally prepared. Despite my membership as a practicing pessimist, even I don’t sit around dreaming up every single bummer that I can think of. Just knowing they’re coming is enough. Sometimes you have to have faith.

One psychologist, Ernest Chang of Michigan, even points out a positive in pessimism: “The phenomenon of defensive pessimism shows that there are times when pessimism and negative thinking are actually features of a positive psychology, since they lead to better performance and personal growth.”

So there you have it – more ambiguity. In the contest of optimism versus pessimism, it would seem perhaps a mood ring might be in order. These are kitschy rings from the 1970s that can sense your temperament based on body temperature. When you see the ring fading to black, connoting a dark mood, you can catch yourself before you slide into a full-fledged funk.

Rather than your heart on your sleeve, this is wearing your emotions on your finger for all to see. And if people don’t approve of your mood, you can remove the ring and flash a finger to show them how you really feel.

Happy New Year!