Positive Illusions Versus Depressive Realism

pink glassesThe Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe argued, essentially, that the human capacities for reason and self-awareness break with nature, giving us more than we, as a part of nature, can carry. So as not to go mad, ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’

People not only limit the content of consciousness, but also fill it with less than the truth. In particular, most people think more highly of themselves than is warranted: they have an inflated sense of their qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly beyond them, and a misplaced optimism about their outcomes and prospects.

For example, most people claim to compare favourably to the average road user, citizen, parent… which is, of course, mathematically impossible, since not everyone can be above average. A couple on the verge of tying the knot is likely to overestimate the odds of having a carefree honeymoon or a gifted child, while underestimating the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced.

The concept of positive illusions first appeared in 1988, in a paper by Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown entitled, Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Still today, it is commonly believed that mental health corresponds to accurate perceptions of the self, the other, and the world, but in their paper Taylor and Brown argued that the evidence suggests otherwise, and that positive illusions are characteristic of normal human thought.

Positive illusions are helpful in so far as they enable us to take risks, invest in the future, and fend off despair and depression. After all, how many people would get married if they had any real sense of what awaited them? But in the longer term, the poor perspective and judgement that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to lead to disappointment and failure, to say nothing of the inhibitions and emotional disturbances (such as anger, anxiety, and so on) that can derive or descend from a defended position.

Positive illusions tend to be more common, and more marked, in the West. In East Asian cultures, for example, people are less vested in themselves and more vested in their community and society, and tend, if anything, to self-effacement rather than self-enhancement.

Positive illusions are also more prevalent in unskilled people, possibly because highly skilled people tend to assume, albeit falsely, that those around them enjoy similar levels of insight and competence. This Dunning-Kruger effect, as it has been called, is neatly encapsulated in a short fragment from the introduction to Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…’ And, of course, it may also be that, compared to highly skilled people, unskilled people are more reliant on positive illusions for their self-esteem and broader mental health.

Depressive realism

Just as it is commonly believed that mental health corresponds to accurate perceptions of the self, the other, and the world, so it is commonly believed that depression results in, or results from, distorted thinking.

‘Cognitive distortion’ is a concept from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s and routinely used in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all.

Common cognitive distortions in depression include selective abstraction, personalization, and catastrophic thinking:

  • Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones, for example, ‘My partner didn’t call me yesterday. He must hate me.’
  • Personalization is to relate independent events to oneself, for example, ‘The nurse is leaving her job because she’s fed up with me…’
  • Catastrophic thinking is to exaggerate the negative consequences of an event or situation, for example: ‘The pain in my knee is only going to get worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.’

However, the scientific literature suggests that, despite their propensity for such cognitive distortions, many people with depressed mood can also have more accurate judgement about the outcome of so-called contingent events (events that may or may not occur) and a more realistic perception of their role, abilities, and limitations—a phenomenon that is sometimes, and controversially, referred to as ‘depressive realism’.

The concept of depressive realism originated in 1979, in a paper entitled Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser? On the basis of their findings, the authors, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson, argued that people with depression make more realistic inferences than ‘normal’ people, who are handicapped by their positive illusions. On the face of it, this suggests that people with depression are able to see the world more clearly for what it is, while normal people are only normal in so far as they are deceiving or deluding themselves.

This is a seductive proposition for someone like me, who has long been arguing that depression can be good for us—for example, in my book, The Meaning of Madness. But here’s the rub: people with depression are pessimistic even in situations in which pessimism is unwarranted, suggesting that, rather than being more realistic, their thinking is merely ‘differently biased’, and just as rigid and distorted as that of normal people with their positive illusions.

Wisdom, it seems, consists in being able to shed our positive illusions without also succumbing to depression, although, for many, depression may be a necessary step along the way.

The Sunny Side of Boredom

How to make the most out of boredom

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What, exactly, is boredom? Boredom is a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal: we are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. We want to do something engaging, but find ourselves unable to do so, and, more than that, are frustrated by the rising awareness of this inability.

Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they do get bored, generally have higher thresholds for boredom. In the words of Colin Wilson: most animals dislike boredom, but man is tormented by it. In both man and animal, boredom is induced or exacerbated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is so common in children and adolescents, who, in addition to being chaperoned, lack the mind furnishings—the resources, experience, and discipline—to mitigate their boredom.

Let’s look more closely at the anatomy of boredom. Why is it so damned boring to be stuck in a departures lounge while our flight is increasingly delayed? We are in a high state of arousal, anticipating our imminent arrival in a novel and stimulating environment. True, there are plenty of shops and magazines around, but we’re not really interested in either, and, by dividing our attention, they serve only to exacerbate our boredom. To make matters worse, the situation is out of our control, unpredictable (the flight could be further delayed, or even cancelled), and inescapable. As we check and re-check the monitor, we become painfully aware of all these factors and more. And so here we are, caught in transit, in a high state of arousal which we can neither engage nor escape.

If we really need to catch our flight, maybe because our livelihood or the love of our life depends on it, we will feel less bored (although more anxious and annoyed) than if it had been a toss-up between travelling and staying at home. In that much, boredom is an inverse function of perceived need or necessity. We might get bored at the funeral of an obscure relative but not at that of a parent or sibling.

So far so good, but why exactly is boredom so unpleasant? Arthur Schopenhauer argued that, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom. Boredom, then, is evidence of the meaninglessness of life, opening the shutters on some very uncomfortable feelings which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite feelings. This is the essence of the manic defence, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control—or, failing that, any feelings at all.

In Camus’s The Fall, Clamence reflects to a stranger:

I knew a man who gave 20 years of his life to a scatterbrained woman, sacrificing everything to her, his friendships, his work, the very respectability of his life, and who one evening recognised that he had never loved her. He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen—and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death.

People who suffer from chronic boredom are at higher risk of developing psychological problems such as depression, overeating, and alcohol and drug misuse. A study found that, when confronted with boredom in an experimental setting, many people chose to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks simply to distract from their own thoughts, or lack thereof. Out in the real world, we expend considerable resources on combatting boredom. The value of the global entertainment and media market is set to reach $2.6 trillion by 2023, and entertainers and athletes are afforded ludicrously high levels of pay and status. The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but this has only made matter worse, in part, by removing us further from our here and now. Instead of feeling sated and satisfied, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation—ever more war, ever more gore, and ever more hardcore.

But the good news is that boredom can also have upsides. As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, boredom can be our way of telling ourselves that we are not spending our time as well as we could, that we should be doing something more enjoyable, more useful, or more fulfilling. In that much, boredom is an agent of change and progress, a driver of ambition, shepherding us out into larger, greener pastures.

But even if we are one of those rare people who feels fulfilled, it is worth cultivating some degree of boredom, insofar as boredom provides us with the pre-conditions to delve more deeply into ourselves, reconnect with the rhythms of nature, and begin and complete highly focused, long, and difficult work.

For Bertrand Russell,

A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

In 1918, Russell spent four-and-a-half months in Brixton prison for “pacifist propaganda”, but found the bare conditions congenial and conducive to creativity:

I found prison in many ways quite agreeable… I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy… and began the work for Analysis of Mind … One time, when I was reading Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, I laughed so loud that the warder came round to stop me, saying I must remember that prison was a place of punishment.

But of course, not everyone is a Russell. How might we, mere mortals, best cope with boredom? If boredom is, as we have established, an awareness of unmet arousal, we can minimize boredom by: avoiding situations over which we have little control, eliminating distractions, motivating ourselves, expecting less, putting things into their proper perspective (realizing how lucky we really are), and so on.

But rather than fighting a constant battle against boredom, it is easier and much more productive to actually embrace it. If boredom is a window onto the fundamental nature of reality, and, by extension, onto the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling back the curtains. Yes, the night is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.

For just these reasons, many Eastern traditions encourage boredom, seeing it as the path to a higher consciousness.

Here’s one of my favourite Zen jokes:

A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.

“Ten years”, said the Zen master.

“Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?

“Twenty years.”

So instead of fighting boredom, go along with it, entertain it, make something out of it. In short, be yourself less boring. Schopenhauer said that boredom is but the reverse side of fascination, since both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.

Next time you find yourself in a boring situation, throw yourself fully into it—instead of doing what we normally do, which is to step further and further back. If this feels like too much of an ask, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh advocates simply appending the word “meditation” to whatever activity it is that you find boring, for example, “waiting in an airport— meditation.”

In the words of Samuel Johnson: “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

References

  • A Schopenhauer, On the Vanity of Existence (from Essays).
  • A Camus (1956), The Fall
  • Wilson TD et al (2014): Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 345(6192):75-77.
  • PwC (2019), Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2019-2023.
  • B Russell (1930), The Conquest of Happiness, Ch 4 Boredom and excitement.
  • B Russell (1951), Autobiography, Vol 2, Ch 8.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1991), The Miracle of Mindfulness. Rider Books.
  • J Boswell (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

How to Get Out of Your Head

7 ideas for being more in the moment

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The hardest thing to see, said Friedrich Schiller, is what is in front of your eyes.

Gardening is more and more recognized, and now even prescribed by doctors, for its health benefits, including reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

How might gardening, and nature more generally (including animals), help with mental health? To various degrees, we live inside the stories we tell ourselves. But gardening drags us out of our tortured heads and back into the natural world, which blunts the ideological and emotional extremes to which detached, abstract thought is prone.

In the Philosophy of Existence (1938), Karl Jaspers described this disinterested process of looking outside oneself—or “phenomenology”, as it is sometimes called—as “a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.”

Just picture the gardener’s pure and simple delight at the first crocuses or tulips, a bird’s nest, a swarm of bees… When we stop noticing small things, we are no longer truly alive.

The word “phenomena” derives from the Ancient Greek meaning “things that appear”, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.

Pioneered by Edmund Husserl (1859-1939) as a philosophical tool, phenomenology involves paying close attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories and preconceptions. Pick out an object, plant, or animal, look at it, and then keep on looking for much longer than you normally would. Vision, said the painter James Ensor, changes as it observes.

As a method, phenomenology enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness. This is not quite the same as mindfulness, and, unlike mindfulness, phenomenology has not yet seeped into popular consciousness.

Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. Phenomenology, in contrast, is more explicitly outward-looking—and, I think, much easier to practice.

Phenomenological activities such as wine tasting, gardening, and bird watching remove us from our stifled selves and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations.

In that much, phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life.

Without further ado, and as promised, here are 7 ideas for being more in the moment:

1. Start small and make it regular. For example, aim to go for a half-hour nature walk each day. Go no matter what, even if you’re busy or it’s raining. Having to go for a daily walk is one of the best things about owning a dog. People enjoy the disconnect of having to walk the dog—because, actually, it’s the dog that’s walking them.

2. Make a change to your routine. Born in Königsberg in 1724, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was renowned for his strict routines. His neighbors could tell the time by his daily walks and even nicknamed him “the Clock of Königsberg”. He died in 1804, having in all his 79 years seldom left the city’s precincts. When we are too set in our routine, we tend to take our surroundings for granted. This actually helped Kant, enabling him to live inside his head and become the abstract philosopher that he became. But for most of us, it can grow into a problem. By making small changes to our routine or surroundings, for example, going for an early morning walk, putting a pitcher of tulips on the kitchen table, we naturally notice things more. It’s a bit like traveling, but on a smaller scale.

3. Simplify your life. When we are anxious or stressed, we tend to focus on our worries at the expense of the world around us. But the more we focus on our worries, the more stressed and anxious we become, setting up a vicious cycle. We can bring down stress and anxiety and break that vicious cycle by cutting out certain things, even if that means doing less or doing only one thing at a time. At the very least, we need to make sure that we are getting adequate sleep and exercise, and that we are making the time, every so often, to do the things that we enjoy.

4. Practice deep breathing. In the shorter term, we can alleviate stress and anxiety (and even physical pain, as anyone who’s been through childbirth knows) by regulating our breathing: Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds. Then purse your lips and gradually let the air out, making sure that you let out as much air as you can. Continue doing this until you are feeling much more relaxed. Try it now, it’ll only take a couple of minutes—and, I promise, you’ll notice the difference.

5. Cultivate idleness. There’s a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. Most animals dislike boredom, but man, says writer Colin Wilson, “is tormented by it”. Boredom can open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings. We are, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “always giving parties to cover the silence”. But idleness, and even boredom, also have important upsides.

Here’s one of my favourite Zen jokes:

A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.

“Ten years,” said the Zen master.

“Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?”

“Twenty years.”

The more we rush, the less we contemplate; and the less we contemplate, the less we understand. Time is a very strange thing, and not at all linear: sometimes, the best way of using it is to “waste” it.

6. Savour. Make an effort to enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing. For example, when it comes to your main meal of the day, don’t just lean at the counter and scoff it down lukewarm. Give it a bit of love and care, even if you’re eating alone. Turn off the TV, set the table, dim the lights, and make a moment to feel grateful. Wine lovers don’t just swallow their wine, they admire its hue, swirl it around in the glass, close their eyes and breathe it in deeply…

7. Focus on the process more than on the purpose, especially when it comes to repetitive, mundane tasks like cooking and gardening. When you paint a picture or write a book, it is there for ever (and isn’t that just amazing?). But when you mow the lawn you have to do it all over again in just a few days’ time. The gardener is like Sisyphus, the mythological king made to repeat for all eternity the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher Albert Camus concludes: “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

The ability to get out of your head and be in the world is only one aspect of a wisdom that has been known to mystics and scholars for centuries and millennia, and that is increasingly being confirmed by both philosophy and science. Socrates certainly knew it, as did the Buddha, and more recently, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Emily Dickinson. In my new book, The Secret to EverythingI reveal this wisdom and discuss nine more of its aspects and practical applications.

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