Psychologists have found that fantasizing about the future can lead to increases in depression — and a new study provides some more clues as to why that is.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Consciousness and Cognition in May, examined the role that rumination plays.

“Much research on depression focuses on understanding and changing negative cognitions (including cognitions about the future), but less research has focused on understanding how positive future-oriented cognitions impact depression,” said the study’s corresponding author, Regina Miranda of Hunter College.

Previous research had found that people who fantasized about an idealized future tended to have fewer depressive symptoms in the present, but faced more depressive symptoms in the future.

“This study builds on the work of Gabriele Oettingen, a researcher at NYU who has found that imagining a desired positive future as if it has occurred without considering the steps needed to get there leads to lower commitment and effort towards goals, and more recently, she and her colleagues found that positive fantasies are associated with increases in symptoms of depression over time,” Miranda told PsyPost. “Her work suggested that in the short-term, positive fantasies may improve mood, but in the long-term, they may worsen mood. After initially reading her work several years ago, we had also wondered whether this type of fantasizing might sometimes take on the form of rumination, a maladaptive form of repetitive thinking that we know is associated with depression.”

The researchers first surveyed 261 undergraduate students about engaging in positive fantasies about the future. They also measured the participants’ depressive symptoms (using the Beck Depression Inventory) and their level of rumination. Then, the students returned to the researchers about six weeks later to have their fantasies and level of depressive symptoms assessed again.

The study did not find that engaging in positive fantasies about the future led directly to depressive symptoms over time. Instead, the relationship was an indirect one through brooding — meaning the passive dwelling on a negative mood. This form of rumination appeared to be linked to both positive fantasies and depressive symptoms.

“Our findings suggest that fantasizing about a positive, desired future once in a while (i.e., inconsistently) is not necessarily maladaptive over time; it is when people indulge in positive fantasies about the future more consistently, or when people’s fantasies increase that they may tend to more closely either resemble or lead to maladaptive forms of rumination such as brooding,” Miranda told PsyPost.

Eric W. Dolan

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