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Philosophical Outlook & Mental Well-Being

Sam Woolfe asks if pessimism is a proper response to life or a symptom of depression.

If you have a pessimistic philosophical outlook on the world then it makes sense that you would also feel miserable. However, there is more to the notion that your philosophy is tied to your mental well-being than just the idea that pessimism is worse for your mental health than optimism. For instance, which philosophical outlook is more grounded in reality, pessimism or optimism? And which way does the causality lie? Does depression result in pessimism, or do pessimistic tendencies result in depression? Is the causality even one way? Could not pessimism and mental health issues such as depression interact in a cycle, with vicious downward spiralling effects? I want to examine these questions in turn, drawing on examples of philosophers who fit the bill as either pessimistic (like Arthur Schopenhauer) or optimistic.

Do Depressives See the World More Clearly?

‘Depressive realism’ is the hypothesis that depressed people have a clearer idea of how things are or make more realistic decisions than the general population. This notion was developed by psychologists Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson and is outlined in the book Depressive Realism: Four Theoretical Perspectives (1988). Although clinical depression involves maladaptive beliefs and behaviours, Alloy and Abramson argue that the negative thoughts that depressives have reflect a more accurate appraisal of the world. Non-depressives (that is, most people) appraise the world in a positively biased way. They tend to view the past, present, and future with rose-tinted glasses. This bias is known as the Pollyanna principle, and is seen in the tendency to remember pleasant events more vividly than those which are unpleasant. The name of this bias comes from the novel Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter. Its central character is a young girl who plays what she calls a ‘Glad Game’ – she tries to find something to be happy about in every situation.

Does the evidence substantiate the depressive realism hypothesis? Well, one meta-analysis of the available sociological studies says that averaged across all of them, there is a small depressive realism effect (‘Depressive Realism: A meta-analytic review’, Michael T. Moore & David M. Fresco, 2012). But its authors note that the methodology used influences whether a depressive realism effect is found. This could help explain why there is evidence both for and evidence against depressive realism.

Philosophical Pessimism

The most infamous philosophical pessimist is Arthur Schopenhauer. Some of his 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 enjoyed being an old grouch. Furthermore, it is not clear if he was naturally (congenitally) pessimistic, or whether his pessimism was due to his personal life, which, among other things, involved strained relationships with women; particularly his mother. Perhaps some individuals are just inherently more prone to negativity. But Schopenhauer’s father possibly died by suicide. According to Rüdiger Safranski in his biography Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy (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” (trans. Ewald Osers). Scientists believe that up to 40% of people with depression can trace it back to a genetic link. Combining both nature and nurture, Schopenhauer may have had some underlying vulnerability towards depression and/or pessimism, and this could have surfaced or become more intensely expressed and exacerbated by stressful life events.

To get a taste of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, take these excerpts from On the Sufferings of the World (trans. R.J. Hollingdale):

“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.”

Or consider these 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, then, existence is ‘vain and worthless’. This perspective 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, existence is on the whole a negative outcome, entailing more suffering than joy. In On the Sufferings of the World, Schopenhauer firmly holds onto the conviction that the world and the human race “is something that had better not have been”. He writes:

“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.”

Contemporary philosopher David Benatar echoes this outlook in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (2008), where he expands on the arguments made by Schopenhauer on pain and pleasure in human life in order to justify his own anti-natalist position. He argues that while pain is bad and absence of pain is good (uncontroversial points), an absence of pleasure is not itself bad. This means that it is always a worse situation to exist than to not exist.

Benatar seems to hold to the view expressed by Schopenhauer that pain is negative in a much more intense way than the positivity of pleasure. In addition, Schopenhauer sees happiness only as the negation of something positively painful. As he argues in On the Sufferings of the World, happiness “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 much more painful. The pleasure in this world, it is said by some, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see at a glance whether either statement is true, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.”

The Pain of it All
The Pain of it All by Michele Angelo Petrone (1963-2007). Michele was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994. He founded the MAP foundation in 2002 to promote expression, communication and understanding of serious illness and dying.
The Pain of it All © Wellcome Collection, Michele Angelo Petrone. CC by 4.0. Find out more: onca.org.uk/2017/05/16/remembering-michele-angelo-petrone/

Philosophy & Depression

Philipp Mainländer (1841-1876), another German philosopher, also sheds light on the connection between philosophical outlook and mental health. Theodor Lessing called Mainländer’s central work The Philosophy of Redemption (1876) ‘perhaps the most radical system of pessimism known to philosophical literature’. In it, Mainländer (who was highly influenced by Schopenhauer, unsurprisingly) says that life has absolutely no worth and that ‘non-being is better than being’.

It is difficult to find any English translations of Mainländer’s work, but we might summarise his philosophy as saying that the entire universe has one goal, to reach non-being, which it achieves through the continuous weakening of the sum of its forces. (In modern times this might be taken to refer to the increase of entropy.) Accordingly, each individual must exhaust his or her strength to arrive at the point where their desire for extermination can be fulfilled. The true liberation of man lies in death.

Was Mainländer alright? Well, while serving in the military, he wrote to his sister Minna about being ‘exhausted, worked-out’ and ‘ineffably tired’: excessive tiredness is a common symptom of depression. After he completed writing The Philosophy of Redemption he experienced a mental breakdown, then died by suicide, at the age of thirty four.

In all this, Mainländer highlights how philosophical outlook and well-being can become deeply entangled. Indeed, this raises the interesting question of how much of our worldview more generally is influenced by our mental health, and how much by reasoning, observation, intuition, wisdom, and so forth. The connection between philosophical pessimism, anti-natalism, and mental health, is also illuminated by the fact that philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Benatar, and Mainländer make similar statements to those of depressives. Schopenhauer believed human existence in general to be a mistake, while a depressive may say that their own 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 some cosmic blunder?

If philosophical notions such as pessimism, existential angst, and crisis commonly manifest in depression, is there not something to be said about viewing depression as a philosophical problem, at least to some degree? 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” (‘Philosophy And Depression’, 2005, philosophicalsociety.com). It’s a controversial statement, especially if it discourages people from pharmaceutical interventions or forms of psychotherapy based on changing one’s patterns of thinking. For the sake of balance and wellness, each individual should draw on those methods that are most relevant and helpful to them: philosophical, spiritual, pharmaceutical, physical, or psychotherapeutic. With something as complex as mental health, it would be unwise, even dangerous to make generalised or unnuanced recommendations. Ruggiero does, however, raise the pertinent point that the way in which mental illness is perceived culturally can affect how it’s recognised and treated.

The Transformation of Suffering

Not all philosophies see the suffering intrinsic to human life as something which calls for despair. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism states that life is characterised by suffering and being unsatisfied. Yet a miserablist outlook doesn’t really seem to be at the heart of Buddhist philosophy as it is for Schopenhauer (though he was influenced by Buddhism in his ethics). Alan Watts, a Western Buddhist philosopher who always exuded cheerfulness and joy in his talks, said, “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.”

To combine some of Watts’ other remarks on the human condition: “The meaning of life is to be alive… Yet most people rush around as if in a great panic, as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves… We live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us in every conceivable way that to die is a terrible loss… But if we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified… There will always be suffering; but we must not suffer over the suffering.”

It is very hard, but the lifelong task of each person is to develop a healthy relationship to their suffering. Continually responding to pain from a place of wisdom can lessen the burden of suffering, and may end up radically changing your philosophical outlook in the process.

© Sam Woolfe 2019

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer who lives in London. He tweets at @samwoolfe.

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