Depressive Realism


Depressive realism is the proposition that people with depression actually have a more accurate perception of reality, specifically that they are less affected by positive illusions of illusory superiority, the illusion of control, and optimism bias.

The concept refers to people with borderline or moderate depression, suggesting that while non-depressed people see things in an overly positive light and severely depressed people see things in overly negative light, the mildly discontented grey area in between in fact reflects the most accurate perception of reality.

Studies suggest that depressed people appear to have a more realistic perception of their importance, reputation, locus of control, and abilities than those who are not depressed. People without depression may be more likely to have inflated self-images and look at the world through ‘rose-colored glasses,’ thanks to cognitive dissonance elimination and a variety of other defense mechanisms.

This does not necessarily imply that a specific happy person is delusional nor deny that some depressed individuals may be unrealistically negative. What’s more, some studies suggest just the opposite, that mentally healthy people actually have fewer positive illusions and illusions in general than depressed ones. One study found that all forms of illusion, positive or not, were associated with higher depressive symptoms.

The French philosopher Voltaire’s classic 1759 novella ‘Candide: Or, Optimism’ deals with this subject and can be considered an early exploration of this psychological phenomenon. The story is an attack on Leibniz’s optimistic theory that ours is the greatest of all possible worlds, a philosophy that is espoused by the character of Professor Pangloss even though the events around him are presented as unambiguously awful.

Much of the humor in the story comes from Pangloss’s rationalizations of these miserable and cataclysmic events as he will not admit that even the worst forms of individual human suffering are not all for the best. His position is counterpointed later in the book by the character of Martin, a more depressive character whose pessimistic philosophy may not be any better for getting along with life, but his viewpoint is certainly the least deluded as to the reality of the world around him.

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