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The Depressive Realism Hypothesis: Yay or Nay?

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Are you suffering from depression? You may not be so proud of your melancholy state of being, but there is a bright side to the situation.

If you are constantly looking at the glass as half empty, and wondering what the point of life is, you may be thinking more realistically than those nauseously joyous folks you see skipping around Happy Hour.

It turns out, that depressed people see the world more realistically and may be judging their own performance and the state of reality in a more realistic way.

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The term is referred to as “depressive realism” and the whole concept of it as actually, well…pretty depressing. The theory behind it says that while in our normal state, we function off of delusions of happiness, but these fade away when we are depressed.1

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Instead of saying that people who are depressed just have a negative view on life, the theory speculates that depressed people are just seeing the world for what it really is.

Oh, wow. I hope this isn’t true because I get in those depressed moods WAY more than I like to admit, and it’s those happy delusions that help me get out of bed.

The National Institute of Mental Health says that around 16 million people, or 6.7 percent of the U.S population, were depressed in 2015.2

Depressive realism was introduced by a paper published by L.Y. Abramson and L.B Alloy in 1979. The researchers asked both depressed and non-depressed patients to sit in front of a green light and a button. The researchers asked the participants to judge how much control they had (via pushing the button) over the light.3

It turns out that the depressed participants were drastically better at judging how much control they had while the non-depressed participants assumed they had more control over the light than they actually did (in general).

Colin Feltham, a professor at Sheffield Hallam University and author of Depressive Realism, says that the theory has mixed results.

Feltham goes on to say, “It may be tied to certain other psychological theories, like the terror management theory. Terror Management suggests that human nature is actually wired towards self-deception: In order to avoid facing terrifying concepts like death, most of us live in a state of self-delusion. And maybe, when we’re depressed, we’re just less likely to be deceived.”4

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OK, before we all freak out about the findings that depressed people see the world more realistically, let’s just remember that depressive realism is just a hypothesis and it doesn’t mean that life sucks. Maybe depressed people thought they didn’t have much control over that light BECAUSE they were depressed.

I mean, it could be argued that depression makes people give up, in a sense, on things in life that are important to them like their goals and dreams. Maybe they are less likely to take action and go after what they want, leaving them tangibly unfulfilled and forcing them back into a cycle of depression.

And what if happy people felt like they had more control over the light because they are used to taking control of their lives? Maybe, just maybe, they are happy because they are constantly working on their goals and dreams, getting them to where they want to be in life.

I’m no expert, but I can only hope that the world and life aren’t actually the way I see it during my depressed, premenstrual moods.


  1. Jeffries, S. (2006, July 19). Happiness is always a delusion. The Guardian. Retrieved from
  2. Major Depression Among Adults. Retrieved from
  3. Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser?. Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 108(4), 441-85. Retrieved from
  4. Lickerman, A. (2009, October 8). Overcoming the fear of death. Retrieved from

This guest article originally appeared on Why Depressed People See The World More Realistically.

The Depressive Realism Hypothesis: Yay or Nay?

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). The Depressive Realism Hypothesis: Yay or Nay?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Jul 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.