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Study Finds That Many Depression Sufferers See a Hopeful Future

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A new study by a Hofstra psychology professor finds that although people diagnosed with depression may suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, they envision a future of high self-worth. This suggests that depressed people derive meaning from their suffering and believe their current difficulties will result in an improved future. The authors suggest treatment should focus on viewing present-day difficulties as opportunities for growth necessary to bridge notions of past, present and future selves into a meaningful whole.

The counterintuitive finding that depression is often accompanied by a hopeful outlook about a future self is published by Hofstra Professor Mark Serper and doctoral student Yosef Sokol, and appears in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Dr. Serper’s and Mr. Sokol’s study consisted of 450 people, 138 of whom had been diagnosed as depressed. Dr. Serper said, “Subjects not suffering from depression typically see life getting progressively better over time – they view their present as better than their past and look forward to a future that is happier than their present.”

Subjects suffering from depression perceive their past and future selves higher than their present self-worth.  “As a group, those subjects with depression have an idealized vision of their past, and they see themselves someday returning to the person they once were or the level of success or happiness they once had. Although they may feel hopeless about their current situation, they instinctively grasp and expect future self-improvement and success.”

Highlights of Dr. Serper’s and Mr. Sokol’s study:

  • While depressed individuals suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth, less is known about how they view their past and future selves (temporal self-appraisal) and the degree of perceived unity of the self over time (continuous identity).
  • Euthymic (non-depressed) individuals typically report an improved self from the past to the present and from the present to the future and have high levels of continuous identity (CI). In other words, they believe they are better than they were, and they believe the future will be even better than the present.
  • In Study 1, Dr. Serper and Mr. Sokol found that, unlike euthymic individuals, subjects with depressed mood perceive their past and their future selves as better than their present-selves.
  • In Study 2, they replicated these findings and also included a measure of CI and severity of hopelessness to determine the relationship between pessimism about the future to temporal self-appraisal and continuous identity. Dr. Serper’s and Mr. Sokol’s results suggest that depressed people, even when feeling hopeless about future external events, intuitively sense that there is some room for personal growth despite their negative views of the self, the world, and future.
  • Future studies may wish to use individuals who were diagnosed with depression to explore further how depressed people see themselves changing from the present to the future. Additionally, future studies could determine if depressed individuals who do not perceive their future self to be improved are at higher risk for adverse outcomes.

Dr. Serper concludes the study by noting that depression treatment may be modified to foster a sense of unity between present and future selves and examining how current life decisions may impact a future self. Since depressed individuals appear to idealize the past and make self-appraisals for a future self to recover or return to a level of an idealized past, treatment can focus on deriving meaning from current life difficulties and the ability for one to grow to a superior future self.

Read the full study.

About the author

Ginny Greenberg

Ginny Greenberg is director of public relations and an alumna of Hofstra University.

Email her at prpgse@hofstra.edu .

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