Pathological Optimism vs. Chronic Pessimism

Patient Expert

I have a friend who remains optimistic and cheerful in spite of the fact that no one knows what to do about the situation in Iraq, global warming, the Darfur massacres, world hunger, AIDS, cancer, diabetes, fast food, corn subsidies, or the intransigence of her own children. No amount of global or personal misfortune has ever shaken her smiling certainty that life is good.

Not only has "Maureen" never had a depressed day in her life, she had to actually read up on the topic in order to understand the depressions I've been going through on and off as long as I can remember. "I can't imagine," she said, "what it must be like."

You might think Maureen has led a charmed life, but she hasn't. She has had well more than her share of abuse, neglect, and other misfortunes, if by "share" we mean to dole such things out equally among the population. The flip side of Maureen not minding the terrible things that happen to her is the sheer delight she takes in the good things.

For example, when Maureen began receiving a social security check after years of hard, underpaid work, she didn't see it as her just rewards. To her it was like getting an unexpected birthday present from a wealthy distant aunt. Maureen was overjoyed. Maureen was grateful. And every month when the check comes, Maureen is delighted afresh.

I, who worry about everything, worry about Maureen not having anything to retire on, since no one can live on a social security check alone. But Maureen is optimistic. "I'm saving some money each month now," she says. "By the time I'm 95, I'll be able to retire."

Of course, when her old car kicked the bucket last month, Maureen had to use most of her savings to buy a new one. And if Maureen should get sick and not be able to work, then her only recourse would be to rely on her children, one of whom she still helps to support.

At this point in my life, I don't have the financial worries I did when I first met Maureen. My life is easy. I can do whatever I want to with my days. And yet, I am dissatisfied. I am anxious. I want more.

Some depressions are a result of life events such as sickness, poverty, or a death in the family. But others are a matter of brain chemicals and psychology. Just as Maureen manages to remain in an up mood no matter what happens to her, I have trouble maintaining mine even when life is good. How about you?