Is depressed thinking a good thing?
One very strange result of studies on depression is that depressed people are a lot more realistic than most. Their judgments about what they can and can’t do, their predictions about events, and their guesses about what others think about them, tend to be shrewder than non-depressed people. Their predictions about exam grades are also a lot more accurate than their over-optimistic peers. 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.
So is it true that depressed thinking is better than optimistic delusion? Well, ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Realism is always better than delusion. But it doesn’t have to come with depression. In this article I argue that we should keep a (slightly) pessimistic realism about life, while staying out of the learned helplessness that comes with depression.
Is unrealistic optimism healthier than realistic depression?
The fact is that pessimism is usually more realistic than optimism. Here are two lists that I have compiled more or less off the top of my head.
Pessimistic ideas that might depress you:
- On average 50% of your decisions will be wrong
- You are a lot less talented than you think
- Many of your achievements owe something to luck
- Any success you have will be temporary at best
- Most people you have met are indifferent to you
- You have little influence over events
Optimistic ideas that might make you happy:
- You can make a difference
- You are special
- You are likeable (to most people)
- You have free will
- You make your own luck
- You are continually growing and learning how to be more successful
Take another look at the two lists and ask yourself what the main difference is.
The difference between depressed thinking and proactive thinking
Here is what I notice: The first list is reactive (based on past experience), static, and closed to fresh experience. Depressed people may have many true thoughts but they avoid risk, stay away from people and spend a lot of time being unhappy. To a great degree they are stuck in learned helplessness.
The second list is affirmative, proactive and leads to action of various kinds – personal development, reaching out to people, making decisions, taking risks, and experimenting with life. Thereby keeping you engaged with life, and experiencing the full range of emotions from joy to sadness – rather than just observing it. No matter whether your hopes are unrealistic or not, the journey is is the most important thing.
Cavafy on proactive decisions
There is a poem by Constantine Cavafy that illustrates this point, If Odysseus had thought about the 10-year voyage home from Troy to Ithaka, and all the problems he was going to encounter he would never have started out. Neither would he have been reunited with those he loved. And he would have missed out on some rich experiences. The moral is: Don’t think about it – get on the road!
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.
How to overcome your depressing thinking
As this article has attempted to show, there is a difference between pessimistic thinking and depressed thinking. You can be a cheerful pessimist as well as a depressed pessimist.
It is not pessimism that leads to depression, but hopelessness and negative self-judgments.Hopeless thoughts tell you that nothing is worth doing, while self-judgmental thoughts reiterate that you are worthless. So if you are a depressed pessimist it is those two types of thought you should target.
In Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) you can learn to question thoughts like these. Asking:
- Is that thought really true?
- Is that thought helpful?
- What would be a more realistic thought?
Challenging depressed thoughts – and replacing them with helpful thoughts – will only take you so far. Ultimately, you have to disprove those thoughts by the actions you take. For example, if you have have the belief that nothing is worth doing then doing something worthwhile will reinforce your self-efficacy. And that, in turn, will give force to the contrary idea that there are things out there that are worth doing.
Similarly, if you do things (charitable acts, for example) that reinforce the judgment that you are a good person those activities weaken the negative self-judgments you might be carrying around. Thereby opening your mind up to the idea that you may not be so bad after all. As Cavafy’s poem implies it is the doing that counts.