There was a time, five or six years ago, when I got very interested in philosophical pessimism. The idea that looking at life through a dark lens could actually make you feel better intrigued me, and I explored a number of different — and sometimes conflicting — positions and points of view, from Buddhism as an early form of pessimism to Simon Critchley’s neo-existentialism. In a world headed for climate catastrophe or technological self-annihilation, intellectually inhabiting the worst of all possible worlds seemed to me like a sensible thing to do.
I am writer of literary nonfiction, and mental health issues have always been important in my work, but it soon became clear to me that my interest in philosophical pessimism wasn’t just theoretical. It’s not hard to guess that I wasn’t in the happiest moment of my life. I was almost always sad, and sometimes downright depressed. It was during one of these trips in the land of nothingness that I came across the concept of depressive realism for the first time.
The idea was formulated in 1979 by two American clinical psychologists, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson, who were at that time working together at the University of Pennsylvania. Alloy and Abramson’s field of research is mood disorders, such as depression.
In a study conducted with 144 depressed and 144 non-depressed participants, and later published in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology”, they found out that depressed individuals are much more likely to formulate an accurate overview of the reality they were asked to assess, whilst non-depressed individuals tend to overestimate their ability to exert control over the world outside of their heads.
In other words, they argued, depressed people are more “realistic” about the degree of control they have over life’s circumstances. Their tendency to expect the worst makes them better judges of reality compared to their non-depressed, often overly optimistic, counterparts.
Alloy and Abramson’s aim was to understand how the biology of depression works, and their study had no philosophical undertones. But, from a philosophical point of view, the implications are clear: it looked like depression helped people understanding reality “as it is”, rather than reality as we would like it to be, and idea that would have found the uber-pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in complete agreement.
Moreover, the concept of depressive realism resonates with another interesting psychological hypothesis, formulated just one year before the publication of Alloy and Abramson’s study, the so-called Pollyanna principle, also known as “positivity bias”.
In their 1978 book of the same name, cognitive psychologist Margaret W. Matlin and David J. Stang argued that people remember positive events better than negative ones, which in turns means that they are more likely to base their actions and beliefs on an overly positive perception of reality.
Both the Pollyanna principle and the depressive realism model affirm the same core philosophical idea: unless we are clinically depressed, we tend to understand reality as more positive than it actually is.
Depression, therefore, is no longer (or at least not only) an invalidating mood disorder, but also the door through which to peer at “reality in-itself”.
In the 80s and 90s, these ideas remained mostly confined to the field of clinical experimental psychology. But in the new century, they started resurfacing, as philosophical pessimism began to look like a valid approach to face the challenges of our difficult times, and gradually left their original academic context to be applied to fields as diverse as politics and literature.
To give just a few examples, depressive realism has been discussed in relation to the work of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, whose work depicts a grim reality of social and sexual Darwinism, and of Christine Smallwood’s debut novel The Life of the Mind, a description of “the abyss between what we think about and what we actually do” in the words of Jia Tolentino. Although he never mentions it directly, Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race clearly shares the idea at the centre of the depressive realism hypothesis. Ligotti is probably the most influential horror writer of our times, and his weird, mechanical worlds stem out of the “degree zero of thought” of life as seen through the lens of depression.
I can’t deny that the concept of depression as a way of looking at reality from a privileged position, in a somewhat clearer and more “objective” way, appealed to me back then, around the time my interest in philosophical pessimism arose. And, in some sense, it still does: there are very good reasons why pessimism should be considered a valid tool to understand the present and act on it intellectually and politically. And yet, over the years I grew more and more convinced that there is a hidden, and possibly dangerous, subtext in this broadened idea of depressive realism. That, in other words, depressive realism is also an ideological construct.
I find it significative that both the depressive realism and the Pollyanna principle hypothesis were formulated at the end of the 1970s in America — that is to say, in the very same years and place where neoliberal capitalism was born. In Britain, it was Margaret Thatcher the first to link neoliberal economics and an idea of “realism” when she famously said that “there is no alternative” to capitalism: that is to say, “realist” people don’t dream of or fight for another world. Cultural critic Mark Fisher called this grim outlook on social change, aptly, “capitalist realism”. Fisher struggled with depression his whole life, and eventually died by suicide in 2017.
I am not suggesting that Alloy and Abramson, when they studied depressive realism, worked on a political agenda, of course. But it is possible that the Zeitgeist, the spirit of time, influenced their research interests, or at least that their discoveries fed into the political atmosphere of the 80s and 90s. Be it as it may, Thatcher’s self-fulfilling prophecy became reality: depression has been on the rise for decades, and there are good reasons to suggest that this increase in numbers is at least partially connected with capitalism and its consequences, such as climate change. Which was the very point that Mark Fisher tried to make during his lifetime.
Treating depression as a somewhat “privileged” outlook on the world, as if depressed people were more objective, can be dangerous, because it could lead us to think that we must accept that “there is no alternative” to the present political and economic system.
Pessimism can be a useful tool in our philosophical toolbox: it helps us see uncomfortable truths, and in times of climate catastrophe and mass extinction it can be necessary as a speculative practice, that is to say to imagine the worst possible outcomes of our actions and act upon them before it’s too late.
But thinking about the worst of possible words should also be a way to allow us to imagine a better world for the future.
It should not become a mean to stop social change.