Positive thinking may worsen symptoms of depression, according to a study published in the journal  Psychological Science on Jan. 29. Apparently, dreaming of a bright future may make you feel good now but it will probably make you more depressed eventually.

“It’s not that positive thinking is bad, or that negative thinking is good,”  researcher and New York University’s psychology professor, Gabriele Oettingen, says. “The idea is that we need to use positive thinking and fantasies in a way that is appropriate for what we want to use it for.”

The professor suggests that people should be more realistic when it comes to fantasies. Considering the challenges that get in the way between you and your goal will make you happier instead of simply imagining a good end result but overlooking the factors that may influence it.


The study states that everyone is somehow pressured to think positively nowadays. In fact, the self-help market profits on positive thinking and is currently a multi-billion dollar industry, worth at US$9.6 billion (AU$13.6 billion), to be exact. This points out how much an individual needs to spend for his long-term well-being.

Some people resort to fantasies to combat depressive symptoms at the present time, but this effect is only good for short-term relief. Eventually, if fantasies do not turn into reality, perhaps due to low effort or success, people will become frustrated and disappointed and likely depressed.

The researchers studied the relationship between positive fantasies and depressive symptoms in children and college students through a questionnaire asking them to imagine themselves in 12 scenarios.

Initially, students who wrote positive thoughts had fewer depressive symptoms. One month later, however, the students scored higher for depression than the ones who initially thought more realistically.

Similar results were observed in 109 fourth and fifth-grade children but they were reassessed seven months after answering the questionnaire. Interestingly, another study found that college positive-thinkers have lower grades, which made them depressed. Experts speculate that positive thinking reduces exerted effort.

The results contradict common belief that positive thinking leads to happier life. Nevertheless, this study does not prove that positive-thinkers will automatically be depressed in the future. This only shows the risk.