When we are depressed, everything looks dark. Our past, our future and of course our present. The things we loved seem to lose interest, our most precious relationships seem to lose significance. Our view of ourselves take a hit and our self-esteem is crawling under a duck. Part of the depression deal is the conviction that our present view of things is the right one: things really are as bleak as we see them. Did you know that there are a number of scientific studies suggesting that depressed people have a more realistic perception of the probabilities of future events than non-depressed folks? Researchers call this “depressive realism”.
One of the go-to ways of fighting depression is by trying to convince depressed people that their way of seeing things is unrealistic, somehow distorted. If you’ve ever tried to convince a depressed friend that things weren’t really as bleak as they saw them—or if you’ve ever experienced depression yourself—you know what a hopeless task this often turns out to be. To each new argument, the depressed mind has a super-power charged counter-argument to oppose (“realism” is on their side, right?). And you’re left feeling that far from changing any dark thoughts, you’ve only managed to pump their power up. Remember, research shows that the depressed mind may in fact well be more “realistic”.
But wait a minute. What does being realistic really mean ?
Does it mean being able to precisely predict what will happen in the long term? After all, as the economist John Maynard Keynes was fond of saying, in the long term we are all dead. A dose of ultimate realism for you. Or is it rather to function optimally (or—let’s be realistic—well enough) in the circumstances we find ourselves in? If the latter, being right loses some of its importance. What matters is what works.
Imagine for a minute that we could climb out of depression without having to question our darker thoughts. Rather than fight them on the terrain of logic, what if we could learn learn to observe them with curiosity as products of our minds, subject to the vagaries of circumstances? We could then gently receive them just as they are and for what they are: thoughts. In so doing, we would learn to notice what these thoughts would have us do. Are they really trying to steer us in the directions we’d like to take? Or could we make life choices independent of what these dark thoughts are saying?
The good news
The good news is that we can learn to move forward in the life directions that most matter to us without waiting for our mind to agree. This ability may in fact be the key to protect ourselves from falling into the pits of depression. The dark dog feeds on the idea that we have to feel motivated or believe in the future to get active and move forward. In fact, research demonstrates that the opposite is true. Only by getting active do we maintain or regain our zest for life and the motivation to act. In the deepest depths, when we lose all sense of purpose and nothing seems important anymore, we can always ask whether we would choose a life in which some things and people really matter. If we would, by engaging in deliberate action–even without the slightest motivation—will gradually lead us to regaining our sense of purpose and a vital life and relationships. So, what do you choose, being right or having a life that works?
In an upcoming blogpost, we’ll look at some concrete strategies to protect against or face up to depression.