Even Depressed People Are Optimistic

Brighter future concept.Do you think there are blue sky’s ahead? If you do, you’re in good company because a recent study shows that adults typically believe that life gets better. Even depressed people believe in a brighter future. But, here’s the kicker – this optimistic attitude may not lead to better outcomes. (Sigh) The findings are published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science

The research shows that middle-aged adults who had a history of depression tended to evaluate their past and current lives in more negative terms than did adults without depression, but this negativity didn’t extend to their beliefs about the future.

“It turns out that even clinically depressed individuals are also characterized by the belief that one’s life in the future will be more satisfying than one’s past and current life,” explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Michael Busseri of Brock University in Canada.

Busseri and co-author Emily Peck of Acadia University, also in Canada, analyzed data available from the Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) survey, a nationally representative sample of middle-aged Americans. The researchers looked at data from both waves of the study, collected 10 years apart, and they limited their sample to those participants who were 45 years old or younger at the first wave. Uh, I must ask, when did we start calling people aged 45 years and younger middle aged?

Compared to non-depressed participants, MIDUS participants who showed signs of depression reported lower levels of life satisfaction at each time point: past, present, and future. Like non-depressed participants, however, the depressed participants were optimistic that life would get better over time.

“What we don’t know yet is whether this improved future life is actually something that depressed individuals feel they will achieve,” Busseri explains. “It’s possible, for example, that envisioning a brighter future is a form of wishful thinking — rather than a sign of encouragement and hope.” In my case, I’d say it’s a combination of being optimistic and wishful thinking.

Busseri and Peck also found that relatively low ratings of past and current life satisfaction were each associated with a higher risk of depression 10 years later, even after taking various demographic characteristics and baseline levels of depression into account.

“The fact that even depressed individuals can envision their lives being more satisfying in the future may provide clinicians and mental health workers with a valuable new avenue for intervention, for example, through focusing on helping individuals develop concrete goals and realistic plans for achieving a more satisfying future life,” says Busseri.

As for me, I can add myself to the list of those who were optimistic about the future, but have found that my dreams didn’t unfold. In the past year I stumbled upon two high school friends on Facebook. Both said nearly the exact same thing to me. They were excited to catch up and see what’s going on with my life because I had so many big hopes and dreams in school. I had optimism. I can only recall small parts of my dreams and goals and none of them have come to fruition. In fact, my life has been hell.

I really didn’t know what to say. Should I have said, I’m out of work and living on Social Security because I have bipolar disorder? Or, tell them that at one point in my life I was homeless and living in the streets? Maybe they’d like to hear the details of my experience spending 10 days in a hospital psych ward? The list goes on. Now there’s no need to comment back that I need to look at the good things in life. I’m well aware I have many blessings, however, I’m keenly aware that being optimistic about the future did not result in the life I had hoped it would be.

While the report and my comments seem negative, I don’t necessarily think so. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, hope is to cherish a desire with anticipation. Cherish, desire and anticipation – what wonderful words! It was hope, and a little wishful thinking that helped me to get off the streets, helped me to get sober, and helped me get through being in the psych ward. Despite all my setbacks I’m still optimistic, I still have hope, and I still have a bit of wishful thinking.

6 comments on Even Depressed People Are Optimistic

  1. What’s that saying? “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.” We all have hopes and dreams and they rarely become what we expected You are a testament to the strength of those dreams. You made a good life and you should be proud. Tomorrow we can deal with tomorrow.

    1. You’re right, Pam, I think most people don’t get what they aspired to. My understanding of the study is that even though most people don’t get what they want, depressed people are more likely to look back and be negative about what they achieved..or did not achieve.

  2. Yes I think the salient point in the report is what you highlight in your comment above. The only person I know with depression is constantly reliving past mistakes etc and reminding me about how miserable her life is, but at the same time, uses the expression, “if only I could …. I’d be happy”. A great, informative blog post and an interesting synopsis of the report. Thanks.

  3. Living in the present, depressed or not, with a hopeful eye towards the future is good. Setting the bar too high for what we want to achieve sets us up for failure and negativity about tomorrow at the outset. Setting the bar just high enough where we may need to stretch ourselves a bit is doable and builds our confidence and fuels our hope. Thank you, Bradley. Good post. You made me remember what works for me and I imagine a few others too.

  4. Good point. I’ve made it clear in previous posts that set the bar too high, which sets me up to fail. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m my own worst enemy

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