Making inflexible demands of the world, then flying off the handle when they’re unmet, is no path to happiness
One thing most people these days seem absolutely certain about – and yes, this is a bit ironic – is that absolutist thinking is bad. Making inflexible demands of the world, then flying off the handle when they’re unmet, is no path to happiness. Nor is seeing every issue in black and white, or refusing to be friends with anyone who doesn’t share every one of your views. Absolutism is no healthier when turned inwards, either, where it manifests as perfectionism. Yet we all engage in absolutist thinking anyway, because it’s easier: we’re what psychologists call “cognitive misers”, clinging to simple rules to navigate what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly complex planet. This explains why small children, still trying to get a foothold in the world, are such social conservatives (“Boys can’t play with dolls!”). Or, for that matter, why it would probably take physical force to get me to read a work of fantasy fiction. I don’t truly believe every book in that genre is terrible; it’s just that without a whole arsenal of such shortcuts, none of us would function.
Unfortunately, this universal habit, when pushed too far, starts impeding our functioning instead: growing evidence suggests absolutist thinking may play a causal role in depression. That’s the view supported by a recent study by University of Reading psychologists Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi and Tom Johnstone, who analysed language used by 6,400 people in various online mental health forums. They found absolutist words such as “everything”, “completely”, “nothing” and “constantly” were about 50% more common in anxiety and depression forums, and 80% more common in suicidal ideation forums, than in control groups. (It’s well-known that depressed people use more personal pronouns – “I” and “me” – but the effect for absolutist language was bigger.) Correlation isn’t causation, of course. But they found that even non-depressed people with a history of depression used such words more often. That suggests absolutism may be a persistent trait, leaving you vulnerable to depression, as opposed to a mindset you get into only once you’re depressed.