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Positive fantasies about the future linked to increased symptoms of depression

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A new psychology study suggests that some forms of “positive thinking” have limited value in the fight against depression — and could even be a hindrance.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found people who fantasized about an idealized future tended to have fewer depressive symptoms in the present, but faced more depressive symptoms in the future.

“The modern era is marked by a push for ever-positive thinking, and the self-help market fueled by a reliance on such positive thinking is a $9.6 billion industry that continues to grow. Our findings raise questions of how costly this market may be for people’s long-term well-being and for society as a whole,” researcher Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues wrote in their study.

The researchers used questionnaires and daily diaries in four separate studies to examine the relationship between positive fantasies about the future and depressive symptoms in college students and children.

The first study of 88 college students found the more positively participants fantasized about the future, the fewer symptoms of depression they showed in the present, but the more symptoms they showed one month later.

The second study replicated the first, but with a younger sample and a longer timeframe. This second study of 109 fourth- and fifth-grade children found the more positively the children fantasized about the future, the fewer symptoms of depression they showed at in the present, but the more symptoms of depression they showed 7 months later.

A third study on 78 college students asked the participants how positive or negative their thoughts were 8 times a day for four straight days. Again, the researchers found that having more positive thoughts predicted fewer symptoms of depression in the present, but having more positive thoughts predicted a greater number of symptoms 6 months later.

In their fourth and final study, the researchers sought to understand the mechanism that linked positive fantasies to future depressive symptoms. Previous research had found positive fantasies were associated with reduced effort, and the researchers’ fourth study suggests this reduction in effort results in real-world consequences that can lead to depressive symptoms. In a study of 148 college students, they found that positivity of fantasies predicted lower course grades, which in turn predicted symptoms of depression two months later.

“Inducing positive fantasies may indeed produce depressive symptoms by encouraging people to enjoy their success prematurely in their minds, thus lowering energy and effort,” Oettingen and her colleagues explained.

Because of the correlational nature of the studies, the researchers stopped short of saying that positive fantasies about the future were a direct cause of depressive symptoms. But the research suggests that positive fantasies are one factor among many that could help explain the emergence of depression.

“When people indulge in them, such fantasies can be seen as a protective factor dampening depressive symptoms in the short term; however, such covering over comes at the expense of low effort and success, which renders positive fantasies a risk factor in the long term… It is not surprising, then, that people who cannot anticipate positive future outcomes become depressed,” the researchers said.


  • mike2lane

    Just like when dealing with other people, lower expectations leads to less disappointment.

    • Nathaenel “nath” defoe

      and like everything else in life,having no expectation leads to no disappointment.

  • JD Rahman

    So…
    being positive is bad
    being negative is bad
    being realistic is bad

    • Roxo

      Being realistic is good. Having unrealistic expectations with a realistic countenance is bad. Be real 100% and change the things that are less than ideal and you’ll be enlightened.

      • Nathaenel “nath” defoe

        reminds me of the book “the alchemist” from paulo coelho… quote:” don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.”

        That doesnt mean you shouldnt think about the future or plan ahead,but..honestly, is the present bad? 99% of the time it isnt. Its fear about the future that makes things bad…

    • guest21

      Being negative isn’t necessarily bad, especially if its tied into realism. Probably has better benefits than being overly positive.

      • BetsyToll

        And being positive isn’t bad, either, if it’s tied to realism. Glass half empty, or half full?

        • Bruce Epper

          Unless you are in a vacuum, the glass is always full.

    • jgijigj

      There is bad in everything in the life.. balance is finding the good while seeing the bad and bad while seeing the good.

  • John

    The study clearly proves that schools induce depression 🙂

    Sorry, but this “study” seems quite broken – how they measure happiness in the first place is quite weird, the number of participants is quite low, and we don’t know much about other factors influencing the experiment (maybe the kids / students were excited at the beginning of the study, and bored later). Anyway, even if the study is right, the headline of this article is still so wrong in many way.

    • CeCe

      Correlation =/= Causation. So you are correct. They see a link, but have no idea what it means, so this is not really all that helpful. Depression is a physical illness of the brain, they can see that in scans. So “happiness” has jack all to do with it. Look at some very successful people who are overall quite happy with their lives and work hard- take actor Jared Padelecki from Supernatural, and they STILL deal with depression and extreme episodes of it. This study makes it look like you can or can’t just think your way out of depression. Name me another disease people think they can think their way out of- do we do it with diabetes? Or cancer? No.

      • frostymarvelous

        You could use or != next time.

  • HvacNews

    When you will still be able to enjoy a clean glass of water from your tap and a plate of food is enough to bring you joy and happiness, you are on your way to beat depression.

    • kenblu24

      That’s not how depression works…

    • frostymarvelous

      And obesity.

  • Amy Tilghman

    serenity now

    • Beardsley McTurbanhead

      Insanity later.

  • robb32

    well…nothing wrong with positive fantasies as long as they’re kept in perspective and are also kept symetrical with reaching and finaling realistic goals as well. Easy to get depressed when all you think about is what you DON’T have or do, and never count the things you HAVE done

  • SATAN’S ALIENS

    ‘The School of Life’ channel on youtube did a video about this and called it “future envy.”

  • Tori Stein

    I fantasize my older sister panties. I sniff them and lick in her discharge weeks.

  • Amy Nickell

    Pessimists have the right idea,,,,,,they always think the worst is going to happen, and are pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t. Sort of supports the hypothesis presented here.