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Have you ever felt deeply depressed? Often, scientists think, depression comes from imagining a bleak future rather than re-living a traumatic past.
Did you ever figure out why you were depressed? For most people—those who don’t suffer from severe clinical depression or MDD (major depressive disorder), which may have genetic or other organic causes—depression happens only occasionally. A family crisis, the loss of a job, a health issue, a relationship break-up, childhood trauma, bereavement, alcohol or drug abuse—many factors can trigger a depressive episode. When one occurs, you feel sad, down and hopeless. The future looks bleak, unsure and even dangerous. Hope, optimism, cheerfulness and confidence all fade. You lose interest in things that normally draw your attention. Nothing seems right, and you descend into a deep depression.
Did the precipitating events themselves cause the depression—or does their perceived impact on the potential happiness of your future actually create that downward spiral?
When we contemplate the future—probably one of the most broadly-shared human traits—we actively construct a mental model of pending failure or possible success. We imagine it by creating images of what our future could potentially look like—even though we’re only guessing. In the times of maximal happiness, the future looks bright. But when depression occurs, the future turns dark and foreboding. It can feel like there is nothing to live for. Researchers estimate that 60% of all suicides involve this kind of depression.
Many psychologists have begun to see depression as a consequence of our inability to prospectively project ourselves into happy, engaging future scenarios:
Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead …
While most people tend to be optimistic, those suffering from depression and anxiety have a bleak view of the future—and that in fact seems to be the chief cause of their problems, not their past traumas nor their view of the present. While traumas do have a lasting impact, most people actually emerge stronger afterward. Others continue struggling because they over-predict failure and rejection. Studies have shown depressed people are distinguished from the norm by their tendency to imagine fewer positive scenarios while overestimating future risks.
They withdraw socially and become paralyzed by exaggerated self-doubt. A bright and accomplished student imagines: If I flunk the next test, then I’ll let everyone down and show what a failure I really am. Researchers have begun successfully testing therapies designed to break this pattern by training sufferers to envision positive outcomes (imagine passing the test) and to see future risks more realistically (think of the possibilities remaining even if you flunk the test). – We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment, by Martin Seligman and John Tierney, The New York Times, May 19, 2017.
That’s one of the primary roles of religion in human life—to help us envision positive future outcomes. That’s why they call it faith—because having faith in the future reassures us that the love of God for humanity will continue eternally. True religion reminds us that the future—both in this world and the next—will not only arrive, but will help humanity thrive:
And wherever the beings spring into existence, there their deeds will ripen; and wherever their deeds ripen, there they will earn the fruits of those deeds, be it in this life, or be it in the next life, or be it in any other future life. – Buddha, the Word, The Eightfold Path.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. – Jeremiah 29:11
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. – Revelation 21:4.
And surely the Future shall be better for thee than the Past, and in the end shall thy Lord be bounteous to thee and thou be satisfied. – The Qur’an, Sura 93:9.
Do you believe in the future?
Our unique human ability to contemplate and consider the future, and our willingness to make sacrifices in the present to obtain something better in the future, have allowed a significant part of our success as a species. Because we can imagine a future, we have one. Educators now believe, for example, that regardless of their socioeconomic status or family background, students who have a positive vision of the future have a much higher likelihood of success in school. On the opposite side of that equation, data from a seven-year study of thousands of juvenile offenders in Philadelphia and Maricopa County, Arizona, shows that those who expected to die young committed more crimes, and more serious ones, than those who believed they would live into old age.
In other words, one of the chief predictors of success in this life is hope, faith and belief in the future.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll look at what it takes to have a hopeful view of what comes next.