“Life gets better.” Three simple words on which we have built a cultural foundation for getting through the tough times in life. The “life gets better” mindset is this idea that no matter how awful life is in this moment it won’t always be. At the end of the proverbial nightmare tunnel there is a light, and once you have defeated the misery and/or doldrums of your life and reached it you’ll achieve the level of “better.” What’s more, you’ll be proof – a bona fide living breathing example that life really does get better. The light of your presence will be an inspiration to those around you who haven’t yet made it to “better,” but who want, desperately, to join you there. They will look to you for guidance, and because you remember what it was like, you will be there to push and pull them out of their slump. It’s a wonderful thing, this idea of “life gets better,” there’s just one tiny problem. It doesn’t work for everyone.
Research published in Clinical Psychological Science indicate that both adults with and without depression believe that their lives will improve, however, for adults with depression this optimism may not actually lead to a more positive outcome. According to Michael Busseri of Brock University in Canada, “It turns out that even clinically depressed individuals are also characterized by the belief that one’s life in the future will be more satisfying than one’s past and current life,” however, “…this pattern of beliefs appears to be a risk factor for future depression, even over a 10-year period.” Busseri, with co-author Emily Peck of Acadia University, analyzed data collected in two waves (ten years apart) from a “nationally representative sample of middle-aged Americans,” focusing specifically on adults aged 45 or younger during the first wave.
Researchers looked at participants’ ratings of their own life satisfaction – 0-10 from worst life possible to best life possible – and made note of which participants exhibited symptoms of depression. During both waves, the depressed participants rated their lives (past, present, and future) overall lower, however, like their non-depressed counterparts, they foresaw a future for themselves that was better than the present they were living. Unfortunately, once the same individuals were surveyed in the second wave, their current present (aka their past future) was still rated low. It appears as though the positive outlook the depressed participants displayed may have been due largely in part to wishful thinking instead of any sort of encouragement and hope.
We can take two things away from this. The first is that mental health professionals may be able to use this data to implement more effective early warning detection and intervention for individuals at risk for depression. Participants who did not exhibit any signs or symptoms of depression but rated their overall life satisfaction on the lower end of the scale during the first wave were more likely to exhibit signs and symptoms of depression when they were surveyed in the second wave, ten years later. Being able to assess an individual’s risk for depression beforehand may provide clinicians and patients both with the tools needed to take proactive measures to fight depression. The second thing we can take away from this study is that while there is definite merit to positive thinking, it is not an end-all be-all treatment. When you tell a person experiencing depression that life will get better and they just need to hang on and keep fighting you are dismissing the fact that they are experiencing a very real medical condition. By reinforcing the idea that they can beat depression by having a positive outlook you are telling them their depression is their fault to begin with – you are blaming them for a mental illness they did not ask for. Depression is an isolating experience in and of itself and there is no reason to alienate the ones we love with misguided attempts at comfort. Instead of telling a person that it will be okay, tell them you love them and offer to listen. That act of compassion says more than “life gets better” ever will.