If you have a miserable outlook on the world, then it makes sense that you would also feel miserable. However, there is some more nuance to this notion – that your philosophical outlook is tied to your well-being – than just accepting that pessimism leads to poor mental health outcomes. For instance, mental health aside, which philosophical outlook is more grounded in reality, pessimism or optimism? Moreover, which way does the causality lie – does poor mental health result in pessimism, or do pessimistic tendencies result in poor mental health? And is the causality even one-way? Could pessimism and mental health issues, such as depression, not also interact like a vicious cycle, with downward spiralling effects?
To examine these questions, it will be useful to draw on some examples of philosophers who fit the bill as either pessimistic or optimistic.
Do Depressives See the World More Clearly?
‘Depressive realism’ is the hypothesis that depressives have a better idea of how things are than the general population. This notion was developed by psychologists Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson. Although depression involves beliefs and behaviours which are maladaptive, Alloy and Yvonne argue that the negative thoughts that depressives have an accurate appraisal of the world.
In addition, they add that non-depressives (most people) appraise the world in a positively biased way. This bias is known as the Pollyanna principle: the tendency to remember pleasant events more accurately than unpleasant ones. According to researchers Matlin and Stang, we view the past with rose-tinted glasses. The name of this bias comes from the novel Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter, which describes a girl who plays a ‘glad game’ – she tries to find something to be glad about in every situation.
So does the existing body of evidence substantiate the depressive realism hypothesis? Well, a meta-analysis carried out on the subject underscores that averaged across all studies, there is a small depressive realism effect. In addition, the authors note that the methodology used influences whether a depressive realism effect is found. Indeed, this could help explain why there is both evidence for and evidence against depressive realism.
The most famous philosophical pessimist is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Some of his most uplifting essays include On the Sufferings of the World and On the Vanity of Existence. It is difficult to assess whether Schopenhauer himself suffered from actual clinical depression or whether he was just a grumpy and disgruntled kind of person. His personal life doesn’t indicate other common symptoms of depression, such as social withdrawal, constant tiredness, a lack of energy and motivation, or anhedonia. Furthermore, it is not clear if Schopenhauer was naturally pessimistic, or whether his pessimism (as well as his misogynistic views) were influenced by his personal life, which involved strained and frustrating relationships with women.
Perhaps some individuals are just inherently more prone to negativity. Genetics and upbringing are powerful influences, after all. In fact, Schopenhauer’s father apparently died by suicide, according to Safranski (1990):
There was in the father’s life some dark and vague source of fear which later made him hurl himself to his death from the attic of his house in Hamburg.
Scientists believe that up to 40% of people with depression can trace it back to a genetic link. Schopenhauer may have had some underlying vulnerability towards depression – or pessimism – and this could have surfaced or become more intensely expressed and exacerbated by stressful life events.
To get a taster of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, take these excerpts from On the Sufferings of the World:
Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.
Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.
Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.
And from On the Vanity of Existence:
Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life?
The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists.
For Schopenhauer, existence is “vain and worthless”. This perspective also led him to the conclusion that it is better never to have been born. This philosophical position, called anti-natalism, posits that it is immoral for people to have children, since, they argue, birth is – on the whole – a negative outcome, entailing more suffering than joy.
In On the Sufferings of the World, Schopenhauer says:
If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.
Schopenhauer firmly holds onto the conviction that the world and the human race “is something that had better not have been”. The contemporary philosopher David Benatar echoes this outlook in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Benatar expands on the arguments made by Schopenhauer on pain and pleasure in human existence. He lays down certain premises in order to justify his anti-natalist position. He argues that while pain is bad (an uncontroversial point), the absence of pain is good, but the absence of pleasure is not bad, so it is always a worse situation to exist than to not exist. Benatar, of course, accepts that pleasure is good, but seems to hold onto the view expressed by Schopenhauer that the nature of pain is negative in a much more intense way than the positivity we ascribe to pleasure. In addition, Schopenhauer sees happiness only as the negation of something positively painful. As he argues in On the Sufferings of the World:
It is the good which is negative; in other words, happiness and satisfaction always imply some desire fulfilled, some state of pain brought to an end.
This explains the fact that we generally find pleasure to be not nearly so pleasant as we expected, and pain very much more painful.
The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.
Philosophy and Depression
Philipp Mainlander, a German philosopher, and lesser-known pessimistic thinker than Schopenhauer, also sheds light on the connection between philosophical outlook and mental health. The philosopher
Theodor Lessing said that Mainlander’s central work The Philosophy of Redemption is “perhaps the most radical system of pessimism known to philosophical literature.” In this work, Mainlander – who was highly influenced by Schopenhauer – says that life has absolutely no worth and that “non-being is better than being”.
In terms of Mainlander’s mental health, while serving in the military, he wrote to his sister Minna about being “exhausted, worked-out” and “ineffably tired”. (Inexplicable tiredness is a common symptom of depression.) After he completed writing The Philosophy of Redemption he experienced a mental collapse and then died by suicide, at the age of 34. It is hard to find any English translations of his work, but a Spanish article summarises his philosophy as follows:
The entire universe has one goal, which is to reach non-being. It achieves this through the continuous weakening of the sum of its forces. Here is referred the growth of entropy. Each individual must arrive at the exhaustion of his strength to the point that his desire for extermination can be fulfilled. The true liberation of man lies in suicide.
More than 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition. Mainlander highlights how philosophical outlook and well-being can become deeply entangled. Indeed, this raises the interesting question of how much of our worldview is influenced by our mental health, and how much is influenced by reasoning, observation, intuition, wisdom, and so forth and so on. This connection between philosophical pessimism and anti-natalism, and mental health, is also illuminated by the fact that people like Schopenhauer, Benatar and Mainlander make similar statements to depressives. While Schopenhauer believed that human existence, in general, is a mistake, a depressive may say that their life is a mistake. Is it so much of a leap to go from thinking you are an error to thinking that humanity as a whole is like some cosmic error?
If philosophical notions – such as pessimism and existential angst and crisis – commonly manifest in depression, might there not be something to be said about viewing depression as a philosophical problem, at least to some degree? As Tom Ruggiero writes:
Both perspectives, pessimism and existentialism, wouldn’t necessarily see depression as a malady existing in a person’s head. A pessimist and existentialist might, in fact, agree that the world itself is screwed up, that social norms are themselves pathological, that feelings of despair, anxiety, loss, and pointlessness may be typical in people who are exceptionally intelligent and observant. A person who is “depressed” may thus, on this view, see things others don’t see, have keen insight into the waywardness of modern culture, have a refined sense of the good and the beautiful. Drugging a person would therefore dim his vision, desensitize his perception, kill the penchant to search for meanings.
It is a controversial statement, especially if it discourages certain people from pharmaceutical interventions and forms of psychotherapy based on changing one’s patterns of thinking. Ruggiero does, however, raise the point that the way in which mental illness is perceived culturally can affect how it is recognised and treated. For the sake of balance and wellness, each individual should perhaps draw on those methods (philosophical, spiritual, pharmaceutical, physical and psychotherapeutic) that are most relevant and helpful to them. With something as complex as mental health, it would be unwise – dangerous, even – to make black-and-white, generalised recommendations.
Looking at Life Optimistically
In contrast to this discussion on pessimism, other philosophers do not look at the suffering intrinsic to human nature as something which calls for despair. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism states that life is characterised by suffering and being unsatisfied. Yet a miserable outlook doesn’t really seem to be at the heart of Buddhist philosophy like it is for Schopenhauer (who was himself influenced by Buddhism). Moreover, Western spiritual teachers influenced by Eastern philosophy also acknowledge the truism of the first Noble Truth but – due to a natural optimistic tendency, the adoption of an optimistic outlook, or both – spin human suffering in a positive light.
Alan Watts, a philosopher who always exuded cheerfulness and joy in his various talks, said the following about the human condition:
Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.
This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
There will always be suffering. But we must not suffer over the suffering.
We live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us in every conceivable way that to die is a terrible thing. And that is a tremendous disease from which our culture in particular suffers.
If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.
The spiritual teacher Ram Dass has written and spoken about the paradox of suffering, that while it seems obvious that suffering is bad, it is also true that suffering is grace. Ram Dass acknowledges, however, that it is far more challenging to hold the view that suffering is grace compared to the view that suffering is bad. But this is the lifelong task of each person – to develop a different and healthier relationship to their suffering. Continually responding to pain from a place of wisdom can lessen the burden of mental suffering, and may end up radically changing your philosophical outlook in the process.