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Is 2020 Turning Us All Into Pessimists?

is 2020 the worst year ever?

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • 2020 has been a rough year, and as a result, therapists say many people are struggling to stay optimistic.
  • But the "worst year ever" hasn't ruined everything. Some people have still found ways to have hope for the future.

2020 hasn't been a great year for most people. In fact, it's been so bad that it's making some people a lot more pessimistic, according to therapists.

In addition to taking more than 240,000 lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused millions of people to lose their jobs. Most people haven't seen their friends or loved ones for months and will be forced to spend holidays away from them. This is all happening alongside news about widespread protests of police violence, historic political division, and the deaths of role models and civil rights leaders.

"People seem to be looking for more bad news all the time—even those little things that don't impact them directly," says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist, and Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. "They're often looking to reinforce their beliefs that 2020 is the worst year ever. So stories about murder hornets, wildfires, and natural disasters take on new meaning."

Why Are People Feeling More Pessimistic?

The United States has been in a pandemic for almost all of 2020. Wildfires have continued to worsen as a result of climate change, and major figures like Los Angeles Lakers' player Kobe Bryant, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis have died.

Though many bad things have happened this year, that doesn't necessarily mean more bad things have happened. Rather, the pandemic has made people more sensitive to negative news, Morin says.

Amy Morin, LCSW

Even though bad things happen every year, during the pandemic those bad things seem to serve as proof that this year is the worst year ever.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

"Even though bad things happen every year, during the pandemic those bad things seem to serve as proof that this year is the worst year ever," she says.

That pessimism has also affected how—and even whether—people recognize good news. "When anything good happens, people seem to be afraid to celebrate," Morin says. "They're 'waiting for the other shoe to drop' and they expect their good fortune to be taken away from them. It's almost as if some people are afraid to let their guards down and be happy, even for a minute."

Who Is More Affected?

2020 isn't turning everyone into pessimists. Whether someone has felt more negatively this year is affected by a variety of factors, says Lourdes Dolores Follins, PhD, LCSW, a psychotherapist who primarily works with people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Follins has found in her work that a person's ability to remain optimistic depends on their world view before the pandemic, their financial situation, their mental health, and the level of support they had before and during the pandemic. 

In her experience, Follins says people who were involved in social justice work or politics before the pandemic have a world view that allows them to remain more optimistic. "Some people became despairing once the pandemic hit, while other people were actually fueled by their anger and rage about the [administration's] ineptitude" at handling the pandemic, she says.

Follins continues, "For those people who are able to channel their frustration, their sadness, their anger into collaborations and movement work, their perspective is positive. Those who can't find those opportunities or don't have those opportunities [are] a little less optimistic, much more despairing." 

Lourdes Dolores Follins, PhD, LCSW

For those people who are able to channel their frustration, their sadness, their anger into collaborations and movement work, their perspective is positive.

— Lourdes Dolores Follins, PhD, LCSW

People experiencing more precarious financial situations before the pandemic might have a more negative perspective, Follins says, since they are more likely to be in a worse situation now.

People Are Really Struggling With Mental Health

Mental health also plays a role. "Many mental health issues are amplified by the pandemic," Morin says. "People who were anxious have more anxiety. Those who were depressed feel more depression."

Though Follins notes that, as more people talk openly about feeling isolated and alone during the pandemic, some of her clients with depression or anxiety have found solace in the fact that they're not alone. "I've had people say, 'People understand me now,'" she says.

Two factors: Spirituality or religion and social support may help people cope with uncertainty and remain more positive. "If you had a fairly good level of support before the pandemic, that might make it easier to... stay optimistic about the future," Follins says. "But if you lost someone to COVID-19 or other illnesses during the pandemic, it might lead you to have a more negative perspective."

Additionally, many people of color come from a cultural background that may help them cope. "For example, some African Americans who are really connected to their cultural heritage have been able to remain optimistic because they're like, 'Listen, my ancestors went through worse. We can get through this,'" she says.

Follins continues, "I find that folks [who] don't have that kind of connection to or strong connection to a cultural heritage of strength or perseverance, those are the folks who are more challenged right now."

How To Cope With Negativity

Morin says it's important for people to recognize when they've become overly negative. "Sometimes, it's helpful to argue the opposite," she says. "Ask yourself, 'What's some evidence things might turn out better than I think?' Listing a few positives can help balance out all those negative thoughts."

If you're feeling pessimistic, Follins also suggests talking with friends and family and taking time to do things that make you happy. "My partner and I, we do a Friday morning dance break, just totally impromptu," she says. "If you have the means, cook something good for yourself or cook something good for someone else. Do things that make you feel good and/or for other people if you can."

What This Means For You

If you're struggling to stay positive and have the means, talk to a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you train your brain to think differently, Morin says. But if you can't access therapy, talk to friends and family, and remind yourself that many, many people are struggling right now.

Sometimes it's OK to feel a little pessimistic and cynical. But do things that bring you happiness to help remind yourself that your negative feelings and experiences are temporary.

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Article Sources
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  1. CDC. COVID data tracker. Updated November 18, 2020.

  2. Effects of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic (CPS). Bls.gov. Published September 23, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/cps/effects-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic.htm

  3. Environmental Defense Fund. Here’s how climate change affects wildfires.

  4. Blinder A, Draper K, Bergeron E. N.B.a. star Kobe Bryant dies in California helicopter crash. The New York times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/26/sports/basketball/kobe-bryant-dead.html. Published January 26, 2020.

  5. Totenberg N. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, champion of gender equality, dies at 87. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87. Published September 18, 2020.

  6. Seelye KQ. John Lewis, towering figure of civil rights era, dies at 80. The New York times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html. Published July 18, 2020.