Define Optimism for Depression Sufferers

Merely Me Health Guide
  • Hi everybody


    In my last post I asked the question, Are you an optimist, pessimist, or a depressive realist?


    We had such a good discussion that I want to continue with this topic just a bit more mainly for me to fully come to grips with what these words really mean to me. I hope you take this thought journey with me.


    We talked about how the psychological literature has come up with a term called depressive realism which some define as the ability of individuals having mild to moderate depression to sometimes be more accurate in some of their perceptions than people without depression. This concept also postulates that non-depressed individuals sometimes use illusions such as over estimating their abilities and power to control their circumstances in order to feel happy.

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    The Merriam Webster Dictionary provides this on-line definition of pessimism


    An inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome


    It is easy to see how optimism is defined as pretty much the opposite of pessimism:


    An inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.


    Some points I want to make right upfront.  You don't need to be depressed to see things in an accurate and realistic light.  Likewise all happy people are not necessarily suffering from delusions.  It simply is not that black and white.


    I think we are all on a continuum of our overall belief system and also functioning with these concepts.  Let me explain using some real life examples from my own life.


    Let's take the life event of my son being diagnosed with autism.


    Harmful "optimism" might have been if I ignored the diagnosis and believed that the diagnosis was wrong or that somehow my son was going to be cured of his autism. Remember that this is just my personal working through of these definitions.  Harmful optimism I have seen in other parents dealing with this same situation was to believe that they could somehow change the diagnosis or that if they worked hard enough...their child would be "normal."


    Helpful optimism in my view was to say...yes my child has this neurological disability but there is still hope in the future that he can be happy and learn to overcome or cope with his many challenges.  It is also helpful optimism to say...this is an opportunity to grow as a parent and embrace my child despite his or her diagnosis. 


    Depressive Realism:  I cannot change my son's diagnosis.  I can spend any amount of money on methods or therapies, work 24 hours a day, and my son will still have autism.  This experience is going to be hard to say the very least.  So here I am not deluding myself about my abilities or about the future.  There are many who would judge this realism as negativism because I believe in acceptance more than fantasy cures.  However, I feel a whole lot more mentally healthy in the acceptance realm.  Acceptance, does not mean giving up.  It is the exact opposite.  Acceptances gives you real goals to work for and achieve.

  • Negativism or Pessimism:  If I had looked at my son after the diagnosis of a tragedy then this would have had a domino effect upon my actions.  If I felt that things would never get better, that he would never improve and that there was no hope...this is negativity of a most selfish kind.  These thoughts would not help me nor would they help me to help my son.  Pessimism such as this is much akin to the "bad optimism" I have pointed out.  They both are not grounded in reality.  Pessimism is simply an exaggeration of your worst fears. 

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    Here is another example from my own life, my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis:


    Harmful "optimism" in my opinion would be if I believed that some miracle cure was going to get rid of my MS.  All I have to do is believe right?  Another way some optimism might be harmful is if I do not adapt to my new condition and push my body in ways it cannot be ignore my physical limitations because I am "optimistic" that this will just go away.


    Helpful optimism is where I say...yes I have this chronic lifelong disease but I can still be happy now and in the future.  I will learn to adapt, cope, survive, and live with this condition.


    Depressive realism is where I might say I am no longer able to do some of things I used to be able to do.  It might also be if I say...someday I might be using a wheelchair.  This isn't is based on the fact that some people with this condition will, in time, have to use some sort of walking device or even a wheelchair.  I don't see this as pessimism if I don't dwell on that real possibility to the exclusion of healthy living and also enjoying my life. 


    Pessimism or Negativism:  If I sat around and focused on all the what ifs and the worst case scenarios this would not be helpful to my situation.  If I was suddenly convinced that my future includes certain disability then I might as well just stop walking now.  Nobody knows what the future holds.  Pessimism is when you use words like "always" or "never."  Omit these from your vocabulary and you stand a chance to remain hopeful.


    One more point I want to make and that is...pessimism and negativism does not equate with depression.  You are not a negative person because you feel sad.  That is just out and out rubbish.  Depression is a mood disorder.  Depression is not your lack of willpower to be positive.  You can rubber stamp all the smiley faces you want on me or prop up my lips to form a permanent smile.  But there are times when I am still going to be depressed.  Now a bit of depressive realism.



    Now how about you?  Can you think of a life event or challenge and how to apply these definitions to how you feel about things?  I am eager, as always, to hear your thoughts.




Published On: November 03, 2010