Why your most useful ideas are delusions

One very strange result of studies on depressed people is that they are a lot more realistic than the norm. Their judgments about what they can and can’t do, their predictions about events, and their guesses about what others really think about them, are a lot more accurate than non-depressed people. Even the bets they make are more likely to make a (small) profit. You can read more about this discovery here.

Studies on non-depressed people show that most of us are ‘unrealistic optimists’ who believe we have far more control over events, and more talents and skills than is actually the case. We also tend to be irrational in our judgments about the future. For example, most of us tend to over-estimate our scores on ability tests, exaggerate the differences between our own abilities and those of people in the same job, and have a rosier view of the future than experience warrants.

The fact is that pessimism is usually more realistic
than optimism. And this got me thinking about the difference between the two types of thinking.

Here are two lists that I have compiled more or less off the top of my head.

True ideas that will depress you:

  1. On average, 50% of your decisions will be wrong
  2. You are a lot less talented than you imagine
  3. Many of your achievements owe something to luck
  4. Any success you have will be temporary at best
  5. Most people you have met are indifferent to you
  6. You have little influence over your own life

Unrealistic ideas that will make you happy:

  1. You can make a difference
  2. You are special
  3. You are likeable to most people
  4. You have free will
  5. You make your own luck
  6. You are continually growing and learning how to be more successful

The bottom line is this: Headmind thoughts, beliefs and judgments – no matter how accurate they are – make NO difference to your quality of life.

Take another look at the two lists and ask yourself what the main difference is.

Here is what I notice: The first list is reactive (based on past experience), impersonal and leads nowhere. Depressed people may have many true thoughts but they avoid work, stay away from people and spend a lot of time being miserable.

The second list is personal, affirmative emotive, and leads to action – community work, self-development, communication, decision-making, risk-taking and experimentation. Following those activities will keep you engaged in life, and experiencing the full range of emotions from joy to despair – rather than just observing it. No matter whether the outcomes are unrealistic or not, the journey is everything.

There is a poem by Cavafy that illustrates this point, If Odysseus had thought about the journey home to Ithaka, and all the problems he was likely to encounter, he would never have started. Neither would he have been reunited with those he loved. And he would have missed out on some rich experiences. As we say, in Reverse Therapy, ‘Don’t think about it – just do it!’

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


4 thoughts on “Why your most useful ideas are delusions

  1. Cindy Anderson January 17, 2008 / 5:26 am

    Splendid … I’ve quoted that poem dozens of times in my life to illustrate precisely that point!
    I went to bed last night with a similar thought in mind, having heard a piece of a song which on the surface is the most saddening message … a lullaby by Tom Waites .. ‘nothing’s ever yours to keep, close your eyes, go to sleep’. First I thought about it and felt like crying. Then I thought it was a bit like the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. And then I felt liberated. If nothing is permanent then nothing matters – and everything matters.
    We are conditioned to want to keep what we yearn for, and losing it defeats us. We must learn to let it go with a kiss and a wave of the hand and gratitude that we held it for a while… then turn with gladness to the next enriching experience.


  2. John Eaton January 17, 2008 / 9:38 am

    Thanks Cindy.
    You put that point better than I can!


  3. Jenny September 21, 2011 / 9:23 pm

    Kinda reminds me of the movie “Clueless” – she is so delightfully “clueless” (aka delusional) about her specialness and ability to make a difference – that she actually IS special and really DOES make a difference. Plus – she’s super happy 🙂 Good post!


  4. John Eaton September 22, 2011 / 11:11 am

    Thanks Jenny.
    Must go and watch that film – sounds intriguing!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.