Depressive Realism


There is toxic negativity.  There is also the perhaps more dangerous toxic positivity.  The latter is accompanied with "proverbs" such as


"Check your negativity at the door." 


"Just be positive". 


"You harm others by failing to have positive vibes. It puts bad energy around." 


The fact remains that being morose for the sake of ruining others is bad.  Nobody denies that.  Though people tell you to be positive all the time, you need to face and admit the negative things you feel.  Be real about how you feel.


Depressive realism is the thought that the mildly depressed person might have an accurate perception of the bad side of life and the world.

It does not imply that non-depressed people necessarily have an unrealistic perception. It only says that some of them do have at least in some things.


Depression can be functionally realistic if not actually realistic. In other words, it is like an eye that should see clearly but for some reason does not. So you cannot conclude that a depression is an illness even if what it expresses seems to be incorrect.

The studies

Psychologists who supported the concept of depressive realism include Alloy and Abramson (1979) and Dobson and Franche (1989).

The studies of Fu et al.(2004), Carsona et al.(2009) and Boyd-Wilson et al. (2000) assert that you can be happy and yet totally realistic.  They dismiss the existence of depressive realism.  Sometimes depressed persons are more confident in an overdone way than those who are not depressed et al Dunning and Story (1991).

A meta-analysis that compared the results of 118 studies found that the just over half of the studies did support depressive realism as correct.

Most of the more recent studies seem to show that people who are psychologically unhealthy are more likely to hold illusory beliefs than are psychologically healthy. This makes depressive realism seem improbable.


Causes of depression


You would have a very long list if you could write down all the direct and indirect causes of depression.


Some causes are pretty obvious such as losing the job that means everything to you or having thyroid problems or having no exposure to the sun. 


The biggest cause of all will never be known.  It is the reason that even if you are depressed  you will never fully understand why or why you cannot move on after grief like everybody else.  The unknown is the reason why you may suffer for years after having your heart broken and not know why it will not mend.  The unknown cause is working on the known one.   It is prolonging it.


The body is a process and so is the mind.  If we fail to learn how to think in healthy ways and keep the body healthy and keep our surroundings good for our body and mind then something will easily happen that leads us into depression.  Failing to learn how your body reacts badly to the junk food you like so much can put you at risk.  We have to assess our need and look after them.

Only a mildly depressed person might be a depressive realist

Nobody doubts that the person suffering from severe depression will have a distorted negative perception of reality. They will see reality as worse than what it is.

The person suffering moderate or mild depression is not necessarily feeling that things are worse than what they are.

The person may be realistic and this is why she is sad and depressed. Not every person who sees how ugly life is and can be is to be seen as a pessimist. It depends on their circumstances.

The depressed person may be realistic in some things and this realistic perception leads to sadness and depression. The person can suffer from a negative and distorted view of reality and this may cause their depression.

If Depressives can be realistic then why?

Depressive realism means the person perceives the realities of life accurately because -

They are less prone to the illusions of positive thinking. I'm not saying all positive thinking is illusion.

They will not think they have more control over life and more abilities than what they actually have.

They will not have the bias towards optimism that we all have. Some may have the bias in a few things but not others.

It is a mistake to say that a depressive realist who thinks he is worse than what he is is necessarily being unrealistic. He could be more realistic than unrealistic at least in some matters.

We have to accept the possibility that if depressive realism sounds improbable, some depressives may be partly depressive realists.

Cognitive distortions in depression


Depression may lead to the following cognitive distortions.

Selective abstraction is when a person only looks at the negative element in a person or event or thing and excludes the good and better things. For example, they could turn against all their friends because one friend betrayed them.


Religious faith gives the sufferer far more to engage in selective abstraction with. For example, the New Testament rants about sinful human nature meaning that we are seen is sinning because we are sinners by nature. We are not sinners because we sin but we sin because we are sinners. If you believe there is a Devil influencing the world, you will see "bad" people as in league with him and worse than what they are. The temptation to slam all your friends because some of them are bad will increase. You are granted a new way to rationalise this condemnation.

Dichotomous thinking is all or nothing thinking. The person could think that if God does not send some sunshine today that God has it in for him and hates him. At least the atheist is free from the religious version of dichotomous thinking. There is enough without religion giving us reasons to intensify our pain. If religion didn't exist, the atheist who understandably fears it would be better off.

Catastrophic thinking exaggerates the results of bad things. The catastrophic thinker might think for example that if the hospital gets a small funding cut that they will not get the heart surgery they so desperately need and will die and so on. That can happen the depressed atheist or the depressed religionist. But the advantage the atheist has is that he cannot hear of war or an earthquake and conclude that the world is about to end in a final conflagration like a Jehovah's Witness would. Jesus himself encouraged that kind of thinking.

Cognitive distortions in us who are not depressed

Cognitive Bias: Our brains trick us into thinking that edges exist on the table etc. And that rocks are solid. They are not - they are mostly empty space.

Such bias is present in the way we are programmed to think as well. We make assumptions and interpretations with a view to helping us survive. The assumptions and interpretations are not done because we think they are correct but because we are programmed.

Positive Illusions: Eg. we rarely anticipate the fact that our dearest loved ones will die one day.


Illusory Superiority: We tend to think we are better than others in relation to our virtues. We overestimate our abilities and good side.


Illusion of Control: We are programmed to think and feel that we have more control over our lives and our feelings than we actually have.

Defence Mechanisms: We may believe we are better than what we are in order to be able to overcome the influence of those who think we are not much good.

Positive illusions

Positive illusions from the list are worth exploring in depth.


People who do not have depression overestimate the odds of being healthy and happy in life and successful in career. The honeymooners do not imagine that it could be a stressful disaster. they see it through rose-tinted glasses.


Illusions about how the best things are going to happen - positive illusions - motivate us to try to make them happen. The illusions helps us cope when things go wrong. They then have the positive illusion that things will get better. In the long-term, we will end up with the trauma of disappointment and a sense of failure. If you re going to fail, it is better to think failure can easily happen. If you don't think it and it happens you are going to end up in a great mess. Positive illusions are said to confer the advantages mentioned but all agree that you are better off without them. After all if you can get rid of a crutch you must.


Positive illusions are always caused by our tendency as non-depressed people to overestimate the amount of control we have over what happens in our lives.


An interesting example of a positive illusion is the advice, "Life is what you make it." We have some influence over our life but other people and factors we cannot control get in the way of complete freedom.


Depression in some forms and in some cases may be redefined as a healthy suspicion that life is meaningless and that society is absurd and hostile.


Depressed people may ignore relevant information that could give them a more optimistic perspective.  Why?  First of all, everybody does that to some extent in some things.  Second, the depressive realist who finds his negativity confirmed may then assume that information that justifies a more optimistic frame of mind is dubious.  He forgets that having some negative sentiments confirmed does not mean that all clues that there should be more positivity are false or suspect.




Does depressive realism suggest that a happy person or a happier one is suffering a delusion?  Psychologists say no but many people would not know that.  They would end up seeing happiness as an illusion. It is said that those who believe in depressive realism think that being happy involves being oblivious to all that is happening in life and that is depressing. The believers that the depressive realists are not pessimistic people but they are realists.


Depressed people are believed to be pessimistic across the board. If they see through the illusions that make us feel positive, that is because their illness makes them glum about everything. Their accuracy is not down to the fact that they are perceiving properly. It is coincidence.


Case against Depressive Realism

The evidence against depressive realism is the discovery that mentally healthy people who feel happy can do so despite knowing that bad things are around the corner. Sometimes the depressed person is more of a positive thinker in some things than the happy person is.


There are certain things we believe about ourselves that are kind of negative. For example, we think our sense of smell is not as good as that of most people. This is false. If depressive realism is true, then it should cause some people to correctly perceive that their sense of smell is good. But if they are depressed then they should think their sense of smell is virtually useless.


Cognitive therapy is very effective for depression. It is not about encouraging a person to believe lies and nonsense and to look through rose-tinted glasses. It helps people challenge their negative thoughts and feelings with engaging in frequent reality testing,.


People who are depressed may still have strong positive illusions. Some studies show that depressed people may even more illusions than a non-depressed person.


Some say that the idea of depressive realism should be dismissed because it is neither verifiable or falsifiable. The depressive realist may only be realistic by coincidence for it is the disorder talking not the person who is truly perceiving reality. That would not be realism. The realist may feel down over the way reality is so harsh and unpredictable - the person may feel sad and pretend that it is depression in order to get the attention he or she craves.

Bad consequences of belief in depressive realism

It is felt that depression is often undertreated. It is feared that the idea of depressive realism would encourage depressed people to think they are mentally healthy after all and to refuse to take treatment or continue it. They will see therapy as brainwashing. A psychiatrist will not be able to help people who perceive psychiatrists and dishonest manipulators and quacks.

Depressive realism makes sense or seems to. Thus it will make far more sense if you are depressed. But it is a fact that depression is more than just a disorder that makes you pessimistic. It is seeing pessimism as realism. It is feeling that it is realistic. You are left unable to see if you are depressed. You risk never getting it diagnosed and therefore treated.

Faith & Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Bias: God is not an entity but an abstract idea. We may mistake ideas for real things. If our brains fool us that items are made of solid stuff for our survival, then why wouldn't they fool us to mistake an idea of an absolute God for a real thing? They would be better at that actually!

Also, if our assumptions and our interpretations are programmed into us for survival reasons then we make them because we are set up to and not because they are correct.

Extraordinary claims require evidence that is good enough to match up the claim - i.e. exceptionally good and clear. It follows then that as we are not the unbiased rational creatures we put up to be that the sceptic has the right to affirm that our religious and supernatural beliefs should not be taken seriously no matter how convincing we sound.

Positive Illusions: As we rarely anticipate the fact that our dearest loved ones will die one day, surely even if we are hellfire and brimstone Christian bigots we will do an expert job of manipulating ourselves and each other to seldom if ever consider the possibility that they may suffer in Hell with the Devil forever?

Illusory Superiority: We tend to think we are better than others in relation to our virtues. We overestimate our abilities and good side. This shows that religion is dangerous for being part of a religion means you think you are better than a person of a another religion. Religion and sectarianism would then be one and the same thing.

Illusion of Control: We are programmed to think and feel that we have more control over our lives and our feelings than we actually have. Religious people think that they must line up their will to God's. Thus they strive to feel like they are God. If God's will is your will then you are as well off as God and though you are not as powerful you may as well be.

Defence Mechanisms: We may believe we are better than what we are in order to be able to overcome the influence of those who think we are not much good. That is a recipe for sectarianism.




Some people are so lethargic with depression that they will not kill themselves until they get energy through medication.  Those in the worst despair will not get the motive to kill themselves unless they start to improve through anti-depressants. Depressive realism can never lead to suicide for it is about insight and caused by a refusal to let evil win.  If it is true that religion or religious faith can help a person who is very ill with depression, then why are they not getting the blame for suicide just as the medication is?  If someone provides a provides a sufficient motivation to another to commit suicide then that person might be solely responsible for the suicide.  The person is certainly partly responsible if he or she contributes to the motivation at all. Nobody has the right to tell people that if they are in total despair that faith will help.  It is better that they be medicated and supervised but there is no possibility of supervision with faith. Plus they will feel that suicide is okay for they are unable to think straight and make a real choice so God will not punish them for the suicide.


Many who think they are in total despair are in fact not. There is a glimmer. That glimmer does not need to be confused with or by religious faith.  That robs it of its power.


Depressive realism cannot be disproven. It cannot be proven either. The only safe course is to assume that it may exist.  It make sense. 


It is argued that to think life and facing evil are not worth it leads to despair. That is not true.  In fact it is only BECAUSE life is worth it that we can complain if there is too much badness or pain or suffering in it.  That is why we can have hope and this hope has nothing to do with there being a God.  It just is there.

Therefore depressive realism is worse if you believe in a God. Why? Because in your mind, offending God gravely and suffering forever in Hell as punishment for sin is a possibility. In other words, faith in God gives you more things than the atheist to worry about. And worse things! Even if depressive realism is false, we cannot risk giving a person encouragement in a spirituality that they see as real and which gives them more to inspire their depressive realism.

Therefore, if one is mildly depressed, one needs to be challenged about what perceptions one has that are real accurate or inaccurate. Realising that there is accuracy could give the person a feeling of confidence in their discernment and that can be the springboard for gaining even more confidence. The chances of overcoming the depression are increased.

No Copyright