The Optimist vs the Depressive Realist - Who is the Rational One in the Room?

Patient Expert

In my seven years of writing about bipolar here on HealthCentral, I have never posted on the topic of optimism. Better late than never ...

"Optimism," declared Voltaire in Candide, "is the madness of insisting all is well when we are miserable."

Yet, psychology claims otherwise, and to a certain extent they have a point. Optimists live longer, are healthier, happier, and - of course - less depressed. Moreover, psychology can trot out a very impressive   "cognitive theory of depression" that shows how our brains go south once we adopt a pessimistic world view.

In essence, our thinking influences our feelings. Cognitive therapy is based on the premise that we the depressed (including bipolars) need to change our fundamentally flawed thinking.

Very good theory, except that it is entirely wrong.

Back in 1979, Lauren Alloy and Lynn Abramson of Temple University ran a series of experiments that found that "normal" people over-estimate how much control they have over a situation. Those, who are depressed, by contrast, get it right. The word for this is "depressive realism."

If you think the study results were completely unexpected, wait till you hear this: The two researchers were disciples of Martin Seligman, founder of "positive psychology." Dr Seligman, in turn, was heavily influenced by Aaron Beck, founder of cognitive therapy.

Obviously, when we are in a crisis, all bets are off. But all things considered, we the depressed have far more realistic world views than they the normal. The catch is that the self-deluded normals tend to be better at coping with life's challenges than we are. The term for this is "positive illusion." A little bit of positive illusion is good.

But so is depressive realism. Nassir Ghaemi, in his 2011 "A First Rate Madness," argues that Winston Churchill's "severe recurrent episodes heightened his ability to realistically assess the threat that Germany posed." His predecessor in office, by contrast, the perfectly normal Neville Chamberlain, against all evidence to the contrary, infamously took the rosy view that Europe could have "peace in our time."

Neville Chamberlain, in effect, was a flesh-and-blood incarnation of Pangloss, the crackpot optimist in Candide. "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds," Pangloss insists in the face of one catastrophe after the other. Pangloss, by the way, is the kind of guy who can't even put his shoes on the correct feet, much less his own feet.

As you can see, Voltaire is the champion of depressive realists. There is no question in his mind that the world would be better off without optimists making a total screw-up of things, and Hitler proved him right nearly two centuries later.

Indeed, depressive realism can be very useful in our personal lives. With the rose-colored glasses off, we can make rational decisions and spare ourselves a lot of wasted effort. Unless we get manic, we don't go running off doing stupid things. We think before we act.

In his book, "Authentic Happiness," Martin Seligman (the positive psychologist) mentioned that law happens to be the ideal career for depressive types. The entire profession is based on anticipating all the things that can go wrong. In a room of pie-eyed optimists lawyers tend to be the only ones with their heads screwed on straight.

Of course, being right all along is cold comfort when it comes at the expense of depression. A little bit of positive illusion is good, remember? Moreover, positive delusions can lead to positive results. This kind of positive reinforcement in turn can generate its own virtuous cycle (the opposite of learned helplessness). Under the right conditions, thought can create reality. Think Dumbo with the feather.

So if cognitive therapy and positive psychology and all the rest can help you put that magic feather at the end of your trunk, then by all means go with the program. I have benefitted enormously from cognitive therapy and the principles of positive psychology. I am a big fan. But let's at least be honest about who is the rational person in the room.

So, here I am, the depressive realist ...

A couple of years back, I was trying to find a parking space in a hopelessly crowded part of town. I had an out-of-town visitor with me. Regular readers of my posts are well aware of my dysfunctional relationship with driving. I experience extreme anxiety behind the wheel, plus I am almost as blind as Stevie Wonder, plus any stretch of road with more than zero cars on it poses major challenges.

This translates to me not pressing my luck in traffic. I know my limitations. So, after two attempts going in circles, I said: "We're not going to find a parking space here."

"Stop" my out-of-town visitor shouted. Now I really panicked. I thought that some mom had pushed a baby carriage in my path. So, after sorting out that I wasn't about to kill anyone (after almost causing an accident by taking my visitor literally), she preceded to tell me that my attitude was all wrong, that with a change in thinking we could "materialize" a space.

It seems that if I applied my mind to it, I could cause a certain maroon Lexis which was occupying a space that I envied to dematerialize at my pleasure.

Really, how else was I going to materialize a parking space?

I wasn't about to test her theory, at least not that day. I headed further out, where we had a much better chance of finding a space. No fuss, no car wreck. Plus walking is good for us. Depressive realism at work.

Okay, now contrast this with another person in my life. She, like my visitor, also exhibits a high degree of optimism in finding a space. Only her optimism is well-grounded. I drive way too fast to spot potential openings, she patiently tells me. I get flustered, I don't notice things. Her style, by contrast, is that of an animal stalking its prey. She goes slow, she is patient. Plus she can put a Hollywood stunt driver to shame.

"Eventually," she says, "a space will open up." The way she approaches the situation, it always does.

Once you master a golf swing, in effect, it's far easier to visualize the ball landing on the green rather than in the lake. That's the sort of optimism we can all use. Perhaps some day, I will teach her about depressive realism - but why ruin a good relationship?

I am indebted to Jon for bringing up the topic in a comment he posted to my last week's post, Rethinking Stress II. I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation based on your own wisdom and experience. Please share your views. Comments below ...