And it is true: fantasizing about a positive future is likely to make you feel less badly relatively quickly. But this is only half the story because these positive fantasies are associated with longer term depression. Previous research has shown that positive fantasies not only make you feel less down but also sap your energy, lower your effort, and undermine your performance (Kappes & Oettingen, 2011; Kappes et al., 2013).
Oettingen et al. (2016)A new paper by Oettingen et al. (2016) demonstrates in 4 studies that positive fantasies are indeed associated with depressive symptoms in the longer term. In study 1 they had students do a task in which they had to fantasize and fill out a depression questionnaire. The task meant that they were presented with a number of open ended scenario's in which they were the protagonists and about which they had to fantasize. Subsequently, the positivity of these fantasies was rated. Four weeks later the depression questionnaire was administered again. The finding was that the more positive the fantasies were the less depressive symptoms the students reported at time 1 but the more depressive symptoms they reported at time 2 (4 weeks later).
In study 2, which was done with children, an analogous design was used and a similar finding emerged. The more positive the children fantasize the less depressed they felt at time 1 but the more depressed they felt at time 2 (which, in this study, was 7 (!) months later). In study 3 students were monitored 8 times a day for four days. At random times they were asked how positive their thoughts were at that particular moment. Also a depression questionnaire was taken. The more positive the thoughts of these students were, the less depressed they felt at time 1 and the more depressed they were at time 2 (6 months later).
In study 4, with students, a similar design was followed as in study 1 but now, at time 2, it was additionally measured how much effort they had put into their studies and how much academic success they had had in the meantime. The finding: the more positive they were at time 1, the less depressed they were at time 1 but the more depressed they were at time 2 (2 months later). Furthermore, as expected, more positivity at time 1 was associated with less effort and academic success as measured at time 2. The study confirmed the prediction that depressive symptoms at time 2 were partly explained by less effort and lower achievements of the students who had had more positive thoughts.