The Reason People Get More Pessimistic As They Age + How To Combat It

Image by Irina Polonina / Stocksy

We tend to associate pessimism with a defeated, the sky is falling sort of demeanor—a constant downer or an overall bummer to be around. But as performance expert Steven KotlerNew York Times bestselling author of The Art of Impossibleand founder and executive director of the Flow Research Collective, notes, pessimism actually casts a much wider net, and it doesn’t always mean doom and gloom.

In fact, “People do tend to get more pessimistic as they age,” he says on the mindbodygreen podcast. But wait—it’s not exactly what you think, and there is a way to combat the so-called negativity. 

Why people get more pessimistic as they age. 

OK, the term pessimistic might understandably give you pause—it’s not like you’re continuously seeing every scenario with a glass-half-empty mindset. What Kotler really means is people typically shift from a goal mindset to a fear mindset over time: “Everything we see and encounter is really shaped by two things: our fears or our goals,” he explains. 

As you age, the stakes can be much higher for every decision you make—perhaps you have a partner, kids, or career to keep front of mind—and, thus, you may become more reality-focused, automatically weighing security threats rather than leaping toward a lofty goal. “Safety and security will dominate,” Kotler notes.

You got married — maybe that was a goal. You had kids — that was a goal. You got a house — that was a goal. We hit our early thresholds, and we’ve stopped setting goals.Steven Kotler

Research has even shown that older adults are more risk-averse than younger people when making decisions. We should note: This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! After all, says Kotler, feeling risk-averse just means “the things you care about start to mount.” It’s when you stop making life goals altogether in fear of failure that he wants to squash. ADVERTISEMENT

What to do about it. 

Since every encounter is shaped by either fears or goals, the natural first step is to create enough milestones that your brain stays in this goal-setting mindset. The problem is, says, Kotler, many people stop setting goals once they’ve reached a certain societal threshold: “You got married—maybe that was a goal. You had kids—that was a goal. You got a house—that was a goal,” he explains. “We hit our early thresholds, and we’ve stopped setting goals. As a result, the system goes, ‘Well, if you don’t have any more goals, I want to keep you safe and help you survive.'” 

The solution? Don’t stop creating goals—not just process-oriented, daily goals (although these are great, too) but long-term dreams to reach. Of course, you want to keep them realistic—shoot for the stars, just make sure you have proper aim—so try to create tangible, specific plans. “You want to chunk those [long-term goals] down into hard, one- to five-year goals,” Kotler says. Perhaps start with setting intentions for the year or creating a vision board to map out your strongest desires. 

The takeaway. 

According to Kotler, it’s easy to fall victim to pessimism—disguised as realism—as you age. It only makes sense that as you encounter more responsibilities and success, your brain shifts into risk-averse mode. Just don’t put goal-setting completely on the back burner; by keeping your milestones in plain sight, you’ll have a healthy balance of security and ambition. 


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