Adopting Realist Worldview Helps to Cope with Depression

CJ Blair, Columnist

Over the past year I’ve started to notice a feeling that I have never before experienced. It comes after periods of high stress or depressive episodes and disappears before I can make sense of it. It’s similar to the feeling I had while reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a novel that I mostly hated but deeply moved me in its final pages. In the final chapter, the book shifts its focus from the narcissistic, bigoted minds of the Compson family to their benevolent housemaid Dilsey and suggests that kindness and humility can thrive even in a hostile environment. This optimism is exactly what I felt at the end of a difficult period, but I began to notice the danger of this sensation when I mistook it for happiness.

Although I’m confident people can be happy even in the worst situations, I’m also aware that mental illness can make this task much harder for some than others. When clinical depression causes my family and me to fixate on our worst thoughts and memories, a breath of air starts to feel like happiness on its own. But if we are underneath a boulder and it’s briefly lifted, it doesn’t mean that we’re doing well; it means that we aren’t being crushed. During depressive episodes, I mistook the lifting of that crushing boulder for the maximum happiness I could achieve. This was wrong.

When I became resigned to the sadness I felt, even a momentary break from it was a godsend. It assured me that what I felt wasn’t permanent and didn’t have to dictate how I lived my life. On its own, this seemed like a pretty healthy assumption to make. What I didn’t realize, though, is that instead of working to minimize the time I spent feeling down, I was accepting sadness as my primary emotion. Instead of thinking I would generally be happy, I assumed I would mostly be sad and occasionally feel better.

Disheartening as this conclusion sounds, it probably appeals to many people because it isn’t overly optimistic — it’s realistic. Accepting that genuine happiness is hard to find seems rational, especially given the ubiquity of sadness in the world. But by accepting this, you presuppose that happiness is something granted to you rather than a choice. Yet given the wide variety of circumstances in which people are able to be happy, it’s hard to view happiness as anything but a choice, one made by people who are resolved to focus on what’s going well rather than what isn’t.

Between blissful optimism and resigned pessimism, a depressed person might find realism to be the best way to escape their rough episodes. While their depression may never be effectively cured, reminding themself that they’ve seen both happiness and sadness and will fluctuate between them might keep them from residing in sadness. Whether someone is clinically depressed or just feeling down, they should never have to view the world relative to their worst moments, and adopting a realist framework might help to keep them from seeing the world framed by negativity.

Even if a break from darkness inspires hope, it can only mean something if it inspires them to improve their circumstance. There’s a delicate line between being aware of negative feelings and accidently wallowing in them. If a person is aware of their worst feelings, they may know who to talk to or what to do when they’re having trouble and accept that it’s hard to know what must be done without examining those feelings.

It’s neither simple nor easy, but it’s possible to learn from your worst moments without becoming resigned to them. Though it’s dangerous to be so optimistic that you are out of touch with the world, pessimism isn’t quite as safe or pragmatic as it’s cracked up to be. Realism strikes a balance between these two extremes and provides a reminder that neither happiness nor sadness is permanent and that one is never far from the other. Turning a blind eye to the darkest moments in your life will keep you from moving forward and improving your condition, but thinking that the world must be framed by its sound and fury will deafen you to the music you deserve to hear.