The Relationship Between Pessimism and Depression
Published on 12th August, 2020
Kate doesn’t think that she will be able to get a good job after graduation. She also feels that it will be hard for her to find a romantic partner because she does not look as good as her friends. She constantly ruminates on bad experiences from the past and doesn’t have high hopes for the future. Kate also tends to experience low mood. Is Kate a pessimist, or is she experiencing depression?
According to the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2019, millennials in Singapore were more pessimistic about Singapore’s future economic outlook and their prospects of securing a job compared to their counterparts around the world. International studies have found that that pessimism is associated with a higher risk of depression in both the general population and those with physical illnesses (Armbruster et al., 2015; Anzaldi & Shifren, 2019). This article seeks to shed light on the underlying mechanisms between depression and pessimism, and provides mental health tips to manage both issues.
Pessimism involves having a negative outlook on life- expecting an unwanted scenario to come true. Often times, these are exaggerated negative outcomes of future events. In extreme cases, pessimists feel that they are vulnerable to making catastrophic mistakes that could lead to bankruptcy, social humiliation and severe loses (Young et al., 2003).
It should be pointed out that a certain degree of pessimism can be functional. By worrying and thinking about the ‘what ifs’, individuals may make the necessary preparations to avoid failure or disappointment (Young et al., 2003). However, when significant disparity exists between one’s pessimistic outlook and reality, it could lead to certain challenges. Anxiety, frustration, and indecisiveness may result from pessimism. The tendency to avoid making mistakes in pessimists also prevents them from taking steps to achieve their goals.
People with depression persistently feel down, and often view their future as bleak. However, depression is more than just feeling sad. It is a disorder that interferes with the way we behave, think, and feel. Contrary to the belief of certain individuals in society, it cannot be willed away by asking the individual with depression to ‘be strong’ or to ‘remember that there are people whose situation are worse than you”.
Why the confusion between pessimism and depression? How do I differentiate them?
Similarities- Negative thoughts
Both pessimists and individuals who experience depression tend to anticipate the occurrence of unfortunate events in their lives and their inability to overcome them. It is typical for them to possess negative thoughts similar to Kate. The individuals around both pessimists and those experiencing depression are likely to notice the presence of cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing and ‘black and white thinking’.
Some overlap - Causes
Pessimism is a mindset shaped by one’s early experience of disappointment or hardship. When a significant amount adversity had been experienced in one’s formative years, it would not have been natural to be optimistic. These life events include the loss of a parent, bullying from peers, living separately from parents, or even abuse (Young et al., 2003). These individuals continue to expect that negative events across different aspects of their lives would occur. This pessimistic attributional style, where they expect that the happy moments won’t last long and negative events will return, would be expressed as hopelessness for the future (Alloy, & Ahrens, 1987).
Pessimists may also learn from their parents or caregivers to imagine the worst possible outcomes. Growing up, their parents talked about the world being a bad place, where friends will betray them and they will be conned of their savings. Pessimistic people have internalised their parents’ attitudes from a young age. As such, they carry these same patterns into their lives.
On the other hand, depression tends to be caused by a complex interaction of several factors. Biological factors such as having a family history of depression, and chemical imbalances in the brain contribute to having depression. Family studies revealed that having parents with depression increased the likelihood of their children having depression. Additionally, those who have lower levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain have a stronger association with depression (Southwick et al., 2005).
The role of cognitive distortions, similar to those in pessimists, in the development of depression makes the difference between both groups somewhat hazy (Anzaldi & Shifren, 2019). Pessimistic attribution style has been consistently associated with depression. Psychological factors such as hopelessness, little resilience to adversities, and constant rumination of sad thoughts also increase the likelihood of having depression (Beck & Alford, 2009).
While early experiences of loss and trauma is a risk factor for depression, it is not a necessary factor in the development of depression. Depression may be triggered by a stressful life event even when one does not experience adverse early experiences. A longitudinal study by Ebert et al. (2019) found that traumatic experiences in early life (before age 17) were present in a third of university students who developed depression in their first year of study. Stressful life events were also significant predictors of the onset of depression (20.3% prevalence in those broke up with a romantic partner and 10.5% in those who experienced a betrayal by someone who is not a partner).
Difficulties in coping with these stressful life events is key in the development of depression. The learned helplessness theory suggests that when people perceive that their attempts to get out of negative events is futile, they are at a greater risk of developing depression. They are likely to give up trying to influence their environment because they learn that their desired outcomes are uncontrollable (Abramson et al., 1978). This is especially the case if the person attributes these events to personal deficits, and they believe that negative outcomes are fixed across many situations.
Major difference- Degree of Impairment
One key difference between pessimism and depression is that the former is a way of thinking (a cognitive style), whereas depression is a mental condition that impacts several aspects of a person’s life.
Pessimists are vulnerable to feeling sad and anxious. However, it does not necessarily cause mental health concerns, including depression. On the other hand, depression can be debilitating to one who is experiencing it. The low mood and difficulties in concentrating which are characteristic in depression may affect one’s daily functioning, including at work and in school. In severe cases, thoughts and intent to self-harm may also be present.
Managing pessimism and depression
Attempt to predict your future more realistically. It is much healthier to go through life reasonably. Recognise that whatever that is gained by anticipating negative outcomes often do not outweigh the cost of constant anxiety.
To reduce pessimism, test your hypothesis! Would doing or not doing something actually lead to such grave consequences? Even if they do, it is likely that you would be able to handle it. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Avoid obsessing over making mistakes, it’s only natural that they are made. If you are experiencing critical thoughts, you may find out more on how to manage them here.
If pessimism is caused by a tragic event from the past, express that anger and grief that could have been buried. Going through these emotions is part of the healing process. After that, leave those events behind and move forward.
Having strong social support can improve depression and reduce pessimism too. Counting on friends or family helps get through tough days, as staying connected reduces feelings of isolation. Even if there are difficult periods of time, you know that you can depend on others as they provide encouragement and boost morale. Reaching out to others does not mean you are weak. Your loved ones care about you and would be reassured that you are prioritising you needs and that they are able to help you.
Maintaining physical health. Yup, having eight hours of sleep, exercising, and eating healthily are all ways to lift your mood. Relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation can also help calm the mind. They help you focus on the present moment, preventing you from constantly thinking negatively (Lejuez et al., 2001).
Last, depression can be better handled by seeking professional help. If depression becomes extremely unmanageable, consult a psychiatrist to get antidepressants. Antidepressants contain chemicals that control mood and stress. However, medication enables a short term relief for challenging times, thus seeing a counsellor or psychologist would be a possible strategy to manage depression in the long run. Consulting a counsellor or psychologist would likely enable you to have better lifestyle habits, and also learn ways to cope with depression. Furthermore, talking about your life experiences with a professional could also enable you to gain clarity for possible reasons you are displaying symptoms of depression.
Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49-74.
Armbruster, D., Pieper, L., Klotsche, J., & Hoyer, J. (2015). Predictions get tougher in older individuals: A longitudinal study of optimism, pessimism and depression. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 50(1), 153-163.
Anzaldi, K., & Shifren, K. (2019). Optimism, Pessimism, Coping, and Depression: A Study on Individuals With Parkinson’s Disease. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 88(3), 231-249.
Alloy, L. B., & Ahrens, A. H. (1987). Depression and pessimism for the future: Biased use of statistically relevant information in predictions for self versus others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(2), 366-378.
Beck, A. T., & Alford, B. A. (2009). Depression: Causes and treatment. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ebert, D. D., Buntrock, C., Mortier, P., Auerbach, R., Weisel, K. K., Kessler, R. C., ... & Demyttenaere, K. (2019). Prediction of major depressive disorder onset in college students. Depression and anxiety, 36(4), 294-304.
Lejuez, C. W., Hopko, D. R., & Hopko, S. D. (2001). A brief behavioral activation treatment for depression: Treatment manual. Behavior Modification, 25(2), 255-286.
Southwick, S. M., Vythilingam, M., & Charney, D. S. (2005). The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress: Implications for prevention and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1(1), 255-291.
Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner's guide. The Guilford Press.
Article written by Janna Lim, who previously completed her internship as a supervised counsellor with the practice as part of her training requirements to complete a Master of Guidance and Counselling Programme.