Let’s say you’ve met the woman of your dreams. You’ve been seeing one another for a few months and everything is going well — so well that you’re imagining married life together with two kids and a golden Labrador.
Happy daydreams like these can make you feel better, but it turns out they may leave you feeling more unhappy in the long run. That’s according to research published in the journal Psychological Science, which looked at fantasies and depressive symptoms.
Lead researcher Gabriele Oettingen of New York University explained their results: “Our findings suggest that as pleasurable and helpful as positive fantasies are for depressive mood in the moment, they can be problematic and cumbersome over time.”
Over four studies Oettingen and her colleagues found that the more positively people fantasised about their futures, the fewer depressive symptoms they felt in the here and now — but the positive feelings didn’t last. In a follow-up session, the happy daydreamers felt worse.
In one study, the researchers asked undergraduate students to imagine themselves in twelve different scenarios. The students were given a set-up for the scenario and were told to imagine how things would work out. They wrote down whatever they imagined and rated how happy the outcome made them feel. The researchers found that the students who imagined the most positive results had lower scores on a scale measuring depressive symptoms — in other words they felt happier than their peers. However, when researchers did a follow-up a month later, these same students showed higher depressive symptoms than their peers who had imagined less positive fantasies — yes, they felt worse. The scientists replicated these findings with another study with children too.
It may not be the fantasies themselves that are the problem though. The students who reported happy fantasies also had a tendency to put less effort into their studies — which meant lower grades and more depressive symptoms.
Because it is difficult — if not impossible — to isolate the positive fantasy and control all the other variables, there is no way of saying yet if there is a direct causal link between positive fantasies and depressive symptoms. More research is still needed. But the results certainly do indicate that there may well be a link — and it may mean that popular positive thinking self-help books make people feel worse.
“The modern era is marked by a push for ever-positive thinking, and the self-help market fueled by a reliance on such positive thinking is a 9.6 billion industry that continues to grow,” Oettingen and colleagues wrote in their paper. “Our findings raise questions of how costly this market may be for people’s long-term well-being and for society as a whole.”
It is possible that positive fantasies stop us from acknowledging problems or difficulties we face trying to reach our goals — and they are much more fun than trying to figure out ways of trying to deal with them.
So if you have met the woman of your dreams, don’t just imagine your life together — all relationships face obstacles and if you want the dream to become a reality, well then, you’ll have to put in the hard work it takes to make a relationship successful.