Are You an Optimist, Pessimist, or a Depressive Realist?

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

If you suffer from depression you may have been told at one point or another that your thinking is distorted and that you have unrealistic perceptions of the world. Isn't that what cognitive behavioral therapy is all about? Changing the way we think so that we feel better? And somewhere down the line you may have also been told that you are a pessimist or engage in negative thinking due to your depression. Some even say that negative thinking is a primary cause for depression. But what if someone told you, you may be depressed but you are absolutely accurate about a lot of things?

Like for example, that you were right about your friend's boyfriend being a bad egg, unscrupulous and not to be trusted. Or that you're your prediction of looming layoffs at your work ended up coming true. What about your uncanny ability to read body language and decipher tone to make the assumption that your mother-in-law really doesn't like you? And then you find out from a second source that your "negative" assumption was grounded in reality. You may have gotten flack for your perceptions and you may be accused of being a glass half empty type of person. I prefer to call it, cutting through the cr** and seeing reality for what it is. Keep the glass I don't need it.

There is a psychological term for this concept that people with depression possess the ability, in some situations, to perceive reality far better than their cheerier counterparts. This controversial concept is called depressive realism.

Many psychologists and researchers have something to say about this intriguing theory. In 1988 psychologists, Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathon D. Brown, reviewed evidence that non-depressed individuals held positive illusions in three domains:

  • The non-depressed view themselves in unrealistically positive terms.

  • They believe that they have greater control over environmental events than is actually the case.

  • They hold views of the future that are more rosy than data could justify.

In essence, this theory proposes that the typical non-depressed person uses happy illusions to maintain their self esteem and get through the day. In comparison, the individual having mild to moderate depression is reported to have a more realistic perspective of his or her image as well as in interpreting information from the external world. Some would caution to not extrapolate that all happy people are necessarily delusional nor does it mean that people with depression are not sometimes distorted in their thinking. Yet this theory does seem to give a silver lining to having what some people call a depressive personality.

According to this theory maybe we who suffer from depression are not negative but merely realistic in our self appraisal as well as our perceptions of our environment.

Of course there are many who would dispute this claim because it seems illogical to trust anything outside of what we deem as "normal" thinking. Author Christopher Putnam, in his article entitled, "The Total Perspective Vortex" explains:

"Perhaps the reason we are so eager to reject any departure from this fiction we call "normality" is because we have grown dependent on our comfortable delusions; without them, there is nothing to insulate us from the harsh cold of reality."

I tend to think that many people who suffer from depression are truth seekers. There are those of us who don't want to wear rose colored glasses. Neither do we want to view the world in an overly negative way. We simply want to know the reality so we can deal with life head on. Is this such a bad thing?

What are your thoughts? Do you feel that your depression sometimes allows you to view the world in a more realistic light? Have you ever been accused of being negative when you felt you were merely being realistic? Do you believe that happiness sometimes requires an unrealistic perspective of the world? Do tell all. We want to hear what you have to say

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."