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New research raises doubts about a decades-old theory that depressed people are more realistic. Westend61/Getty Images
  • New research challenges Depressive Realism: a theory that suggests depressed people are less prone to optimistic bias.
  • Research from 1979 suggests that people with depression are most realistic when judging how much control they have over their lives, but the results could not be replicated in a recent study.
  • Medical treatment, along with talk therapy and spending time with loved ones, can alleviate symptoms of mild depression.

If you have depression, you may have been told at one point or another that looking on the bright side of life could improve your condition.

Those close to you may have accused you of merely underestimating your abilities or insisted that you could overcome depression if you only embraced a little more optimism.

As frustrating as these remarks may be, these well-meaning people may have been working on a long-held assumption that depressed people are just more realistic. This notion stems from a theory known as Depressive Realism.

The theory suggests that depressed people are less prone to optimistic bias and are simply more realistic in judging how much control they have over their lives.

This notion comes from a 1979 study that examined whether a group of college students could predict how much control they had over whether a light turned green when they pushed a button.

The research found that depressed students were better at identifying when they had no control, while the students who weren’t depressed were more likely to overestimate their control of the lights.

Since 1979, these findings have seeped into popular culture and fields of scientific study. However, new research refutes these findings and suggests that the results of the original study cannot be replicated.

In the new study, participants were pre-screened for depression beforehand. They were split into two groups – an online group and a college student group – and asked to complete a similar task to the one used in 1979.

This time, researchers added a mechanism to measure bias and varied the level of control participants actually had.

The recent study did not match the results of the original. Instead, the participants with a higher level of depression in the online group actually overestimated their control.

Meanwhile, the college student group showed that depression levels had little impact on their view of their control.

What does this mean for how we view and treat depression going forward?

“The original research article has since been cited over 2000 times as a meaningful assumption. For a study four decades later to refute its ability to be replicated really puts a spanner in the works,” says psychotherapist Tania Taylor.

“In my personal opinion, the original study was already flawed, and there shouldn’t have been such an onus to ascribing depressed people as depressive realists when the study itself was not applicable to real-life scenarios,” she points out.

When it comes to mental health issues, making general assumptions can be both damaging and limiting. A person with depression may feel restricted by the notion that their mental health is simply a result of their mindset.

They may also find it frustrating and exhausting to fend off unhelpful and inaccurate remarks about their outlook from others.

Taylor agrees that the depressive realism theory can be damaging. “Cognitive theories of depression include how it skews a person’s perception of their environment and experiences,” Taylor points out.

“To state categorically that this altered perception is healthier can have damaging consequences for a person’s ability to recover from a depressive state and in building any kind of therapeutic alliance with their therapist,” she says.

For some, depressive realism can reinforce the stigma that surrounds mental health. It may suggest that the depressed person is somehow at fault or responsible for their condition. Or solidify the notion that they can overcome it through the power of positive thinking.

“You weren’t talked into low mood and depression, so how can you be expected to talk yourself out of it?” says Sylvia Tillmann, an expert in tension and trauma-releasing exercises.

She said such notions can prove debilitating if you feel unable to help yourself.

Taylor believes it’s a positive step forward that the depressive realism term is shifting.

“Although, I imagine people who believe in the depressive realism theory over cognitive theory will still require further research before being completely persuaded,” she adds.

It’s impossible to gauge how these new findings will be perceived by people who live with depression. For some, the assumption that their outlook on life influences their mental health may have helped them understand their illness for many years.

For others, it may be a relief to no longer feel trapped by such perceptions.

However you feel about the results of this new research, if you live with mild depression, you’re likely keen to learn how to manage it.

Alongside medical intervention, it’s often assumed that depression is best managed through mindset. However, Tillmann says working with the body is a great place to start.

She suggests dancing, yoga, breathwork, or tension and trauma-releasing exercises (TRE).

“These activities can release any trauma that is trapped in the body,” she explains. “The nervous system is being calmed, and they can aid relaxation as well. They also reconnect us with our body, which may be useful for people with depression, as many describe feeling numb.”

When you aren’t feeling your best, getting out of the house can feel like a herculean task, but it can make a world of difference. Taylor advises seeking out blue spaces.

“Blue spaces include water. Whether it be a little stream or brook, a bustling river, a still pond or tranquil lake, or the rushing of the ocean waves as they hit the shore. Water is known to improve our mood,” she explains.

Getting out to see friends and family can also help.

“Research consistently shows that if we spend time with people whose company we enjoy, we report our mood being improved,” Taylor points out.

“If it feels too scary to go out into the world, try some easier first steps, like chatting to a friend on the phone or by text,” she advises.

Above all else, Taylor says seeking professional support is key.

“Talk therapy can go a long way in helping you to move away from a depressive state and learning what works for you. It can aid you in knowing your own triggers and what you can do to help yourself in the future,” she explains.