Are Depressed People Just More Realistic?

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I’ve produced two different videos recently in which I mentioned that maybe a certain group of people (educated girls in sexist societies and vegans and vegetarians in meat-eating societies) may be more depressed or more anxious because they are accurately perceiving that the world they live in is fundamentally unfair or otherwise, well, fucked. But today I read something that made me want to clarify something: while it’s possible to become depressed because of accurately understanding something about the state of the world, it’s not necessarily true that people with depression accurately understand the state of the world more than people who aren’t depressed. Let me explain.

I was inspired to talk about this after reading this Vice article with the title “Depressed People See the World More Realistically,” which, let me be clear, is not true. The subhead, “And happy people just might be slightly delusional” is only not equally outright false thanks to the words “just might be slightly,” but it is otherwise misleading. The article isn’t terrible, but yikes. That headline!

This is a hypothesis known as “depressive realism,” an idea first introduced to me by Uncle Frank in Home Alone, who was skeptical that the family would make it to the plane on time: “You be positive, I’ll be realistic.”

Uncle Frank was wrong, considering that (most of) the family did in fact make it in time for their flight to Paris, but there have been actual studies that suggest the Uncle Franks in our lives actually aren’t just big ol’ downers, but they are accurately understanding the state of the world compared to their more positive peers. The Vice article details one of these: back in 1979, psychologists tested depressed versus non-depressed students by having them push a button and watching a light light up. The light had nothing to do with the button, but non-depressed students were more likely to believe that their actions were having some influence. Depressed students were more likely to accurately guess that nothing they did mattered. Fun!

That study cited a bunch of other papers from around that time that together “suggest that at times depressed people are “sadder but wiser” than nondepressed people.”

Those researchers had the right idea there — they didn’t come out and say this means depressed people are more realistic in general. They say “at times.” They then go on to say “A crucial question is whether depression itself leads people to be “realistic” or whether realistic people are more vulnerable to depression than other people.” That’s unfortunate, because it ignores the other crucial question: are depressed people only realistic when the reality is depressing?

The Vice article correctly points out that these studies only show depressive people being accurate about depressing things — nothing I do matters, so pushing this button has nothing to do with the light lighting up.

For an example of the reverse, psychologist Richard Wiseman set up an experiment that would reward positive people. He invited people to come to his lab for a test and left money laying on the ground outside. People who thought of themselves as “lucky” were more likely to notice the money and pick it up. People who were negative, who thought of themselves as unfortunate, tended to miss it. Same reality, different perspectives, different results. 

The Vice article discusses the aspect of death as another example of how depressive people may just be seeing reality for what it is: death is terrifying and inevitable, and so the natural state of rational people must be depression. But that is absolutely wrong, and I’m shocked that an otherwise pretty balanced article (headline aside) ignores the many fascinating aspects of how we think about death. This is something I have personally been very interested in for a long time — at least since I was 17 and realized I’m an atheist. I had to confront the fact that I’m not going to live forever with all my loved ones on a cloud. I’m going to cease to exist, and be forgotten, just like everyone I’ve ever loved. That was a very depressing idea to me at the time and I spent a good ten years being kept up at night thinking about it. 

It doesn’t keep me up any more, and several things contributed. One I’ve talked about before: anti-depressants. I went on them back during “elevatorgate,” when I was getting tons of death threats from “Men’s Rights Activists” online. I went to my doctor because I was horribly depressed and anxious and he prescribed me escitalopram. I was shocked to find that the drug fixed my sleepless nights spent thinking about my impending death. It didn’t stop me from thinking about it, but when it did pop into my head I thought, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that, so why think about it?”

Because you see, knowing I was going to die one day is a realistic and also depressing thought, but the other aspect of that reality is that there is nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point to continually worrying about it. That is ALSO an aspect of reality, but one that my anxiety-ridden brain didn’t even want to think about.

Another thing that helped was realizing that other cultures with different religious beliefs than mine had a more realistic understanding of life and death that was also less depressing. Many Jewish and Buddhist people grow up knowing that there is no “life after death,” and by growing up with that understanding there is no depressive crash later. It’s just a fact of life. Why worry?

Finally, I found comfort in a scientific understanding of what happens when we die. The “me” that is “me” isn’t really “me” at all — I’m a collection of cells that are currently organized in such a way to temporarily have some sense of self, which grants me the ability to learn more about the universe, which, by definition, is also “me.” Philosophers and scientists like Carl Sagan have said this before: “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” “We are star stuff.” Or to quote the great philosopher Chidi Anagonye, “Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it – its height, the way the sunlight refracts as it passes through – and it’s there, you can see it, and you know what it is, it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just… a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from and where it’s meant to be.”

That’s no less “reality” than “I’m gonna die one day,” isn’t it?

One more anecdote. When I lived in Boston, before I was on magical brain drugs, before I even knew I had severe depression and anxiety, I was riding my bike to work through heavy Boston traffic. If you’ve never been in Boston traffic, let me just tell you that as a cyclist I have been hit by cars 4 times in Boston and never in any other city I lived in. So it’s a bit stressful.

I decided to cut through Boston Public Garden, which was technically illegal but had a zero chance of me being hit by a cab driver and in the early morning it was usually deserted. And I saw this woman jogging towards me pushing one of those $400 baby strollers and wearing expensive jogging clothes and I remember thinking “Ugh, fucking rich asshole breeder.” Like, I was just full of hate for this random woman because she could afford nice things and live in an expensive part of town and have a baby and exercise. But as she jogged closer I noticed that while inside the stroller was a sleeping baby, standing on the back of the stroller was a little girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, and she looked like she was having the time of her life. Just this huge smile, hair blowing in the wind, feeling like she was going 100 miles an hour. And seeing her made ME smile, and it made me go back and really pay attention to what I was thinking before. Because my earlier thoughts had just been background, like this kneejerk anger and resentment. But when I went back and examined them, I was like…”Wow, why was I so angry?” No really, why was I angry? It wasn’t this woman. It was the traffic, the anxiety, the depression. My screwy brain didn’t make me see the “reality,” which was, sure, a woman who was rich and looked fulfilled when I was neither. The real “reality” was that it was a beautiful day, I was on my bike, living in a beautiful city, with a good job that paid well, and that woman had nothing to do with me.

That happened a good 15 years ago and I still think of that woman, and that little girl, and they’re a reminder that sometimes when I’m in a bad mood it’s worth stopping, figuring out why I’m in that mood, and fixing it instead of shitting on everyone around me. That might mean adjusting my brain medication (or just remembering to take it), or it may mean shutting my laptop and going for a walk. But the reality of living with severe depression and anxiety is that for the rest of my life I will need to recalibrate, and make sure I’m not just seeing the world through shit-colored glasses.

So no, Vice headline writer: depressed people do NOT see the world more realistically. Depression is a fucking liar. And while some happy people are delusional, there are plenty of other happy people who are happy because their brains work correctly, or because they are working really hard to make up for the fact that their brains kind of suck sometimes. And good for them.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. This was exactly what I needed to hear today, and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

    Thank you. You are often both on point and extremely well timed, for me anyway.

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