If you're suffering from depression, you're likely to believe that your emotional state is likely to generate negative thoughts and expectations you may have about the future. After all, depression can color everything. It's natural to assume that if your outlook is negative or despondent, it's the product of your depressed mood. That's the conventional thinking among most of us in the mental health professions, as well. But for some people the reality is actually the other way around: It's how you envision the future that can make you depressed.
A new study supports this, and it can provide insight for some depressed people, as well as others who may not be depressed but feel uninspired about their lives. I was particularly happy to come across this research, actually, because it gave empirical support to what I've observed clinically, and have emphasized for years: Your vision of your future "self" can shape your mental health today. That is, having a positive vision of what you aspire towards -- a picture of what you're aiming for, a sense of new possibility -- acts like a kind of psychological magnet. It pulls you towards it, and helps you find the path that will take you there. Picturing what you are striving towards is like a tether connected to you. It steadily tugs you towards it. And that generates positive energy and well-being.
However, if you lack that vision of possibility, you're likely to remain more stuck if you're already depressed. Or you may become depressed, as this new research shows. And even if you're not, you'll tend to feel stagnant and flat-lined about some important dimension of your life -- your relationship, your career, your sense of purpose.
The study I'm referring to was published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology and conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. It concluded that a pessimistic view of the future may not be the result of depression but rather the cause of it. In fact, the researchers found that three kinds of pictures of the future, or "prospection," can drive depression:
- Poor generation of possible futures
- Poor evaluation of possible future
- Negative beliefs about the future
According to the researchers, "Prospection belongs front and center in the study of depression...(and) that faulty prospection does drive depression. An understanding of how prospection shapes psychopathology may enable researchers to create more effective treatments and help distressed individuals to create brighter futures."
And that would be helpful to more than just depressed people, as well.