Is poor futures-thinking causing depression?

Are we looking for solutions on the wrong side of the time continuum?

Is poor futures-thinking causing depression?
Photo by Denys Nevozhai / Unsplash

We have all seen the headlines:

'COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.'

'Stemming the next public health crisis — this time, in mental health'

It's not news that a pervasive, global mental health crisis is plaguing the world.

The mental health crisis is being blamed for everything from the Great Resignation to the ongoing need for more work flexibility and the proposed 4-day work week, and even the Opioid-crisis in North America.

Cognitive therapists have never had so much work to do.

But will the traditionally agreed-on interventions help to alleviate the crisis?

Are the causes of the global mental health crisis being accurately diagnosed?

As a professional foresight practitioner I spend a lot of time studying not just strategy, but also the deeper, mental processes and conditions that lead to better futures design and strategy creation.

Recently I read Martin Seligman's book on Learned Optimism and found myself astounded by some of the research that he and his team did on sports teams.

Based on their assessment on how optimistic a sports person or team were, they could fairly accurately predict how well that person / team would perform in the upcoming season.

Their overall levels of mental optimism was found to be a key driver of their future.

In another academic paper, Ann Marie Roepke and Martin Seligman make a radical suggestion that flies in the face of how we currently treat mental health and depression.

They propose that rather than depression being linked with how you frame your past (the primary focus of psychotherapy) , its primary cause is actually how you think about the future.

What drives depression are these three faulty futures-thinking areas:

  1. The poor quality of imagining possible futures - depressed and hopeless people tend to imagine fewer positive scenarios.
  2. Poor decision-making when presented with possible future scenarios - depressed people tend to overestimate, overweigh, and over-attend to risk – and this produces more negative expectations of the future.
  3. Negative beliefs about the future, which fuel a lack of personal agency.

The cause of the global mental health crisis is therefore a lack of hope for the future.

Giving people time off from their work isn't going to fix that. Trying to help them reframe the past isn't going to solve it. Antidepressants are not a long-term solution.

What people need

What people really need is help with how they look at the future.

They need to believe that they can affect the future.

They need tools and methods to better navigate their way towards the futures that they would rather choose.

They need to believe that they are capable of achieving something better tomorrow.

Depression is caused by poor quality futures-thinking; improve that and you start to really solve the issue.