I think we can all generally agree that depression is a terrible thing. Such a large proportion of us experience it at one time or another (and, in many cases, chronically) that I have heard it called today’s great health crisis. Based on what I and many close friends have personally seen and experienced, I would tend to agree.
Depression has this amazing ability to put a pause on your life. It can make it tough to go to work, interact with friends or family, eat, and even get out of bed. Millions of hours of therapy and a comparable number of prescriptions have been employed in combating this illness.
There’s one particular aspect of depression that we all need to understand – the true focus of this article – and that is this: true depression can cause us to honestly believe there is no hope and that nothing can possibly get better.
Logically, of course, we know tomorrow probably won’t be so rainy, our takeout won’t always taste stale, and our significant other didn’t mean to forget X, Y, or Z.
Yet, trying to think positively with a depressed mind still feels about as effective as trying to toast a single slice of bread by skewering the loaf on a lightning rod. Why?
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in his book Stumbling on Happiness that our minds have this amazing ability to “predict” the future via our imaginations. In both exercising our imaginations and accessing past memories, he says, we cannot naturally account for every detail. Instead, our minds fill in certain sights, smells, and feelings. What’s more, these filling-in actions activate the very parts of our brains that the real experiences would.
I’ll illustrate with an example. Let’s say that in your kitchen, the sugary aroma of the most perfect cinnamon rolls ever baked is wafting out of the oven in a thick, buttery cloud of goodness. You can’t wait for the timer to go off so you can pull them out, lay on a not-so-healthy layer of silky-smooth cream cheese frosting, and take that first mouthwatering bite.
Can you smell it? How about taste it? Do you feel that delightful stuff dissolving on your tongue? (If you’re not getting too much out of this, try closing your eyes and really get into the scenario. Change the dish of choice if you have to. You’ll feel it.)
It’s pretty close, huh? You may actually feel like you’re smelling your favorite treat. That’s because with a vivid, familiar, and even emotion-inciting scene like this one called to your mind in detail, the very parts of your brain that actually sense smell, taste, and touch are very much activated and live right now, even though you’re likely not smelling, tasting, or touching anything like a cinnamon roll.
Our thoughts of the past or future are colored by our present experiences.
What this means for us is that if we are experiencing vivid thoughts and emotions in the present, it can be tough to push them out to make way for what we cook up in our imaginations. To put it another way, this phenomenon, called presentism, dictates that our thoughts of the past or future are colored by our present experiences.
To paraphrase a common saying, in the case of depression, this all essentially translates to looking at the world – including our past and our future – through grey-colored glasses. And unfortunately, that greyness is often accompanied by scratches and cracks, irremovable smears of foreign matter, and even an out-of-date prescription.
So, yeah, depression can make pretty much anything appear really cruddy.
The point is, now that you know on a scientific level why depression makes things appear so bleak, remember that. Because if you remember it, you can combat it. You can remind yourself that the things you are imagining are being warped by something you can’t control. You can recognize that the warped version of what you see isn’t real.
Or, if it’s a loved one that’s having a depressive episode, you can keep in mind that they’re not going to see or think clearly about things at the moment. You can be more patient and empathetic with them while their minds sort out what’s real and what’s warped.
Returning for a moment to Gilbert’s book, he gives a single, emphatic, research-based recommendation for making our view of the future as accurate as possible: learn from others’ real-life experiences. Their lives won’t be a picture-perfect clone of yours by any means, but they’ll be plenty close.
You see, there are people who have lived through the life stage you’re picturing. And some of them have done so after (or while) battling depression. They have accomplished the goals you want to complete. They’ve made it far enough to give you a clearer view of the path forward.
When all you see is grey, it’s okay to trust the wisdom of another.
Because even with depression, another person’s honest-to-goodness experiences can still show you the most likely outcome. You may not believe it outright, but at the very least you can trust it as much or more than the smudgy reality your depression is trying to sell you. It can be the real-life glimmer of hope you need to start working yourself out of that rut.
It can, in short, become exactly what you need to keep moving forward.