Cheerful despair: 10 surprising benefits of this unusual state of mind

A thousand years ago, there lived a man named Democritus. He was well-acquainted with human folly and held it in contempt, but he did so with jovial humor. It is for that reason that he is known as the laughing philosopher. He’s a known practitioner of the state of mind called “Cheerful Despair”.

For him, by accepting the inherent darkness in existence, we can savor the good things that life has to offer.

If you’re curious how this can actually be good when practiced in daily life, here are ten surprising benefits of having the “Cheerful Despair” state of mind:

1) You see the world for what it is

Cheerful despair is rooted first and foremost in the acceptance of the world as it is. You don’t pretend that things are not as bad as they actually are, but you don’t pretend that they’re better either.

This realistic perspective is in itself a benefit. Yes, seeing things exactly as they are might seem scary but it is necessary in most cases.

When you are stripped from the secure but sometimes dangerous shield of optimism, you can see things more clearly, which is the first step to any kind of progress—whether personal or that of society as a whole.

2) It will help you make wiser decisions

By seeing things as they truly are—no embellishments and delusions added—you’re likely to make better decisions. You’re being real with your abilities and limitations, so you’re less likely to bite more than you can chew or make excuses for yourself.

Sometimes, people are too optimistic and think they’ll get it right the first time, so when they fail, they’re at a loss as to what they should do. But as your mind is clear of that, you recognize that you can fail, and prepare contingencies in the event you do. You have a plan B, a plan C, and maybe even a plan T.

However, since you’re not blinded by optimism, you will know exactly when to stop.

You’ll recognize the risks and factor them in before you actually act.

Think of gambling. The promise of earning a lot of money in one fell swoop draws people in. People get a bit too hopeful and expect that so long as they keep playing they will eventually win. This is the gambler’s fallacy, and you’ll see it for the folly that it is and laugh.

3) You’re more level-headed

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When you see the world for what it is, you’re going to be much, much less likely to lose your cool when people tell you about the state of the world whether they’re ugly truths or good happenings.

This is in contrast to people who try to see the world as either the best or worst thing ever.

Someone who hates the world is going to get pissed when you tell them about how good the world is. They’d say things like “spare me the flowery speeches!” or “you just don’t get it, this world is horrible and I’ll make you know exactly why” because you’d be going against their idea that the world is the worst place ever.

And for the same reason, you’re also going to make someone mad if they go about pretending the world is nothing but sunshine and roses, and you tell them about the ugly side of existence.

They’d rather look at themselves being happy and think that’s proof the world is good. Who cares about people being massacred elsewhere in this world?

But by being real, by understanding and accepting the darkness in this world while looking to the light, you won’t be affected by people saying the world sucks. You already know it does. You won’t be affected by people trying to convince you that the world is actually beautiful… because you already know it is.

4) Suffering becomes more tolerable

We live in a world that is all too eager to drive us to depression. The News and Social Media expose us to people at their worst. We face the risk of being hurt and betrayed with every relationship we make.

When we practice the Cheerful Despair state of mind, you will see disappointment and suffering as the default states of existence. And because of this, suffering becomes more tolerable. Expectation is the cause of too many of our suffering and by ridding ourselves of this, we become more accepting of things as they come.

It’s easy for us to get depressed if we expect life to be happy and free of suffering. By going the opposite direction—by seeing life as mostly suffering—we don’t feel so bad when life throws us in situations which demonstrate what we already know to be true.

5) Everything that doesn’t go bad becomes a source of delight

As I mentioned above, how satisfied you are with something depends on what you expect, and how well your actual experiences hold up to your expectations.

When you go buy food from a cheap steakhouse and get something good, you will be happy. But if you go to a 5-star restaurant and get something of the same quality, you’ll be disappointed. It might ruin your night.

This same thing is true for life as a whole. And by practicing cheerful despair, you’re basically setting your expectations as low as they could go: zero.

So you become delighted when things don’t go wrong, and especially so when things actually go right!

Let’s say that you auditioned for a talent contest. After watching a recap, you would think you won’t get in because of how talented everyone else is. And then you get the news—you didn’t get picked, but you got a referral for another, smaller contest.

Sure, you might have not gotten into the contest you applied for, but you still managed to get into something!

By accepting the fact that life is full of suffering, anything good that happens surprise you and gives you bursts of happiness.

6) Walk away would be a breeze

Optimism requires a certain blindness to the world’s sheer cruelty. Sometimes that blindness is self-imposed, sometimes it’s not. By not letting optimism blind us to whatever is wrong in this world, we can better see when something is clearly not working.

Let’s say that you’re in a relationship with someone, and you have been spotting red flags everywhere lately. They would be inattentive, distant, and even fail to respond when you tell them you love them. Or they are smiling when they check their phones for messages.

Someone blinded by optimism would just shrug these warning signs off and make all sorts of excuses for them.

But instead of doing that, you face these issues for what they are and act on them. You call them out and communicate. And when you know things are clearly not working anymore, you say adieu.

Without those rose-tinted goggles blinding you, you’ll be better able to spot and act on all those red flags.

7) You won’t cling

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Sometimes, we cling onto things because of an excess of hope. While it’s not necessarily bad—many revolutions and love stories are made possible because of unfaltering optimism—it leaves us more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

By seeing things for what they are and touting a mindset of cheerful despair, if you ever have to let go of a relationship, you can do so without being too beat up about it. Sometimes people just aren’t as compatible with one another as they wished they were, and that’s fine.

And like as not, you won’t even have to let go as much. You can handle life’s troubles with humor, and people generally like having partners who can laugh in the face of adversity and absurdity instead of getting into a raging fit.

8) You will trust your instincts

Optimism and pessimism both cloud the mind, and we end up either overplaying our instincts, or doubting them.

If you keep it real, however, you’ll basically keep yourself steady knowing that your instincts are there for a reason. They warn you, but they’re not the be-all-end-all.

You get to process your feelings better, to put things through greater scrutiny without letting an inherent bias to see things as being more negative or positive to taint your observations.

As a result, you can better discern things and make more insightful opinions.

We make a lot of decisions in one day—from which movie to watch to whether or not we should open the door to a stranger asking for help—and having sharp instincts that are based on reality will shield us from harm and lead us to make good decisions.

 9) Totality of human experience

There’s more to life than just being happy or sad.

There’s a whole spectrum of emotions to experience, and living is about experiencing all of them— and that includes both the good and the bad!

The good times help you live through life when times are rough. Likewise, the suffering we endure in life will help you appreciate the good times you have. Without suffering, you will begin to take your blessings for granted. And in both suffering and joy, you learn things that make you a better person overall.

10) You’ll be happier in the end

In the end, you become happier and healthier by taking a realistic outlook on life than you would be by being either an optimist or a pessimist.

There have been studies done where, all other things equal, it turns out that optimists do worse at achieving their goals.

Someone who was optimistic about their weight loss chances ended up losing less weight than those whose expectations were more realistic.

And of course, when bad times happen, you’ll be able to shrug them off better than you would be if you expected happiness to be a default state of being. You might even manage to laugh at your own suffering!

It’s not exactly easy to learn how to do that, however. We’re all inclined to fight back, to resist the bleak nature of reality and go down fighting. We all want to pursue and live in an idealized, perfect state of being where there is no suffering.

Ideals are ideals for a reason, sadly. They’re all but impossible to achieve. But you can, at least, approach life with a realistic mindset.


Life becomes much more bearable when you learn to see it through a lens of cheerful despair.

You learn to laugh at the things that used to drag you down, and to treasure happiness when it blesses you with its presence. Your mind is free of the fog of optimism and the chains of pessimism.

Life sucks, you might as well laugh at it instead of letting it drag you down.

As the well-loved comedian Joan Rivers once said:

“Life goes by fast. Enjoy it, calm down. It’s all funny.”

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Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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