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3 Ways Pessimism About Future Possibilities Fuels Depression

Being pessimistic about your various "possible futures" may cause depression.

Wikimedia/Public Domain
Having a pessimistic doomsday attitude about your "possible futures" may drive depression.
Source: Wikimedia/Public Domain

Are you someone who has a doomsday attitude about your future? Are you feeling depressive? A new study reports that having a pessimistic explanatory style about possible futures isn't simply the result of depression. Pessimism about possible futures may be a leading cause of depression.

The June 2015 study, "Prospection and Depression," by Ann Marie Roepke and Martin E. P. Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania was published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Roepke studies both clinical psychology, which is primarily aimed at fixing things that go wrong, and positive psychology, which is primarily aimed at enhancing things that go right. Seligman has been a thought leader in the field of positive psychology for decades.

In this study, the positive psychology researchers conducted a meta-analysis of research on "prospection" and depression. Prospection is defined as "the mental representation of possible futures." Based on their meta-analysis, Seligman and Roepke identified three specific types of faulty prospection that can drive depression.

Three Prospections Linked to Depression

  1. Poor Generation of Possible Futures
  2. Poor Evaluation of Possible Futures
  3. Negative Beliefs About the Future
Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

It's always going to be a tightrope walk between being a Pollyanna or a cynic about your past, present, and possible futures. "Pragmatic Optimism" is a term that identifies the sweet spot between an unrealistic rose-tinted view that the glass is always half-full, or a pessimistic view that the glass will always remain half-empty.

You have a choice when deciding what your perspective and explanatory style is going to be about the past, present, and future. You can learn to be optimistic about the future by choosing to take that perspective. In The Athlete's Way, I describe the neurobiology of "learned optimism" saying,

Thoughts move along the neural pathways most frequently traveled. By making a decision to see the glass as half-full, you can rewire your brain to be inclined towards that explanatory style ... Through repetition, these grooves are carved into your synapses and welded together. You have to break the chains that bind you to negative thinking.

Typically, negative prospection is considered to be one of many depressive symptoms. This new meta-analysis suggests that overly pessimistic prospection may, in fact, be at the root of depression. In a press release the authors stated:

Prospection belongs front and center in the study of depression. Laboratory studies are needed to confirm that faulty prospection does drive depression and to help us determine how prospection can be improved.

We hope clinical scientists will invest in research on prospection to shed more light on a crucial and underappreciated process that may underlie much more than depression. An understanding of how prospection shapes psychopathology may enable researchers to create more effective treatments and help distressed individuals to create brighter futures.

Conclusion: Prospection and Depression Are Intertwined

Prospection-based therapy could lead to transdiagnostic treatment strategies for depression and other disorders. Faulty prospection can be improved using a wide range of strategies that focus on how someone views the future.

More research is needed to determine whether prospection drives depression. If prospection does in fact drive depression, interventions that focus more on how someone views the future—and less on how he or she views the past and present—may prove to be effective treatments for depression.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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