Despair Versus Depression

We think that a negative view of the future is more important than a negative view of the self in driving depression. But it is possible that a negative view of the self is a necessary condition of depression. Consider concentration camp prisoners. They might have negative views of the world and the future, but as unjustly imprisoned victims and virtuous people, they might have quite positive views of themselves. Despair certainly may follow, but does depression? For Beck (1974), the negative view of the self is necessary, and despair, when rational, does not equal depression, nor is despair a disorder. In contrast, the reformulated hopelessness theory of depression does not require internal attributions, and despair counts as depression (Abramson et al., 1989).

One possible resolution is that the self is just a particularly long- lasting subset of the future and nothing more. To appreciate this, contrast a negative view of the world to a negative view of the self. A negative view of the world is of almost no moment in depression if one also believes that the world will get much better tomorrow. Clearly a negative view of the world is subsumed by a negative view of the future, because it only matters for depression if it projected long into the future. Hence, within the prospective framework, we can dispense with a negative view of the world, leaving only the future and the self to account for depression.

But can the negative view of the self also be dispensed with? The self (unlike the weather) is a robustly stable factor and it projects far into the future; self-concept is a stable, multifaceted, organized perception of who I am, and thus, of whom I will be. It is possible, then, that the self only matters for depression insofar as it portends a bad future. If an individual believed that he or she was unlovable, but only for today, this would not be so discouraging; the thought "I am unlovable" is distressing because it implies "no one will ever love me." Conversely, self-concept may matter beyond its implications for the future; the active role of self might be moral as opposed to merely predictive, hence, guilt and anger turned inward (Freud, 1917). Even if people believed they could redeem themselves in the future, they might, nevertheless, feel intense distress and guilt over bad deeds they had done in the past.

Does eliminating a negative view of the future in therapy, without eliminating a negative view of the self, fail to relieve depression completely?

In conclusion, prospection belongs front and center in the study of depression. Much more investigation is needed to determine whether faulty prospection drives depression, and how prospection can be improved. We believe that faulty prospection is a crucial and under-appreciated transdiagnostic process that may underlie much more than depression. An understanding of how prospection shapes psychopathology will enable the creation of more effective treatments and allow distressed individuals create brighter futures.

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