Departure from reality is one of the standard markers for mental illness. On the other hand, mental health is based on a solid connection with reality. It makes sense.
But it’s not true. Research has demonstrated that the most realistic people are most miserable and depressed. It is common to assume that miserable people distort things negatively; research suggests that many of them see things accurately.
A solid body of research has demonstrated that the healthiest people are those who have positive illusions. Mentally healthy people tend to have three specific kinds of illusions (Taylor & Brown, 1999):
- They have an unrealistically positive view of themselves.
- They believe they have more control in their lives than they actually do.
- They are unrealistically optimistic.
In each of these areas, depressed people tend to be more realistic than healthy people are. Healthy people actively maintain their illusions by filtering or discounting information that challenges their unrealistic view of matters. Some students of social psychology have observed that healthy people operate less like scientists who are seeking accurate information than like charlatans who distort the data to fit their theories (see Taylor and Brown, 1999). Apparently Pollyanna’s glad game makes good psychological sense.
All of this is nothing more than a puzzling quirk in human behavior except that it has a remarkable spiritual parallel. Consider how the three kinds of illusions listed above relate to core beliefs of a Latter-day Saint:
- We believe that we have a divine heritage, parentage, and destiny.
- We believe that we “can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth [us]” (Philippians 4:13).
- We are optimistic; we face even tragedy believing that, “if [we] endure it well, God shall exalt [us] on high; [we] shall triumph over all [our] foes” (D&C 121:8).
Atheists have always said irrefutable-sounding things like: “The dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its meaninglessness” (Martin Esslin, p. 309 in Peters, 1977). Many traditional believers have felt that they were being pounded by philosophical pessimism. No more.
Martin Seligman, after decades of research on helplessness and optimism, observed that “optimism is good for us” (1991, p. 291). “The pessimist seems to be at the mercy of reality, whereas the optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains good cheer in the face of a relentlessly indifferent universe” (p. 111).
Of course the believer does not see the universe as relentlessly indifferent but does have a massive defense against tragedy. Tragedy shall be finally and mercifully swallowed up by goodness. Even “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor.15:54). There is good reason that the Lord counsels us to “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).
What is real in a telestial world is not at all real in an eternal world. Satan would have us take the pains and disappointments of mortality as an indicator for what is ultimately real. God would have us look through mortality to immortality and eternal life. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). What cause for optimism!
Seligman has argued that people need a “theory of tragedy” to help them make sense of their struggles. Believers have just such a theory in the good news of his redemption. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
A scriptural case study may clarify the points about illusion. It is hard to find a more glorious or detailed revelation than that given to Moses. God introduces himself to Moses by saying, “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” (Moses 1:3).
Why does God say such grandiloquent things about Himself? Is He trying to impress Moses? Does He love to show off? No. He is setting the stage for Moses’ understanding: “And, behold, thou art my son” (Moses 1:4).
I hope in a future world to sit at Moses’ feet and hear him tell how he felt when he realized the blessing of his divine heritage. Father showed Moses “the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold . . . . And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not (Moses 1:27–28; see also verses 4–5).
Why did God show Moses all the workmanship of His hands? To set the stage for another vital statement: “I have a work for thee, Moses, my son” (Moses 1:6; see also verse 26.).
Notice the tender way in which Father addresses Moses: “Moses, my son.” For each of us He announces a personal work. A person who is invited to partner with God in a divine work has reason for confidence, not self-confidence but divine confidence. Moses knew that he was nothing but he knew that in God’s power he could do all things.
It is in the context of this heavenly training that God taught Moses the doctrine that gives us greatest reason for hope: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
The focus and blessing of God’s work is to bring us home to be with Him once again. Surely that is reason for optimism.
God taught Moses those three principles described above: he is a son of God who can do all things in partnership with God and will one day return to His eternal home. The three illusions of mortality are the realities of eternity.
The realities of mortality are the lies of Satan: 1. We have no divine heritage. 2. We are at the mercy of an arbitrary world. 3. There is nothing to look forward to after this life.
Taylor and Brown conclude their classic work on illusion and well being by asking an intriguing question: If people are able to ignore or minimize negative feedback, where is the impetus for growth? But such a question implies that growth is driven best by negative experiences. Taylor and Brown hypothesize otherwise: “We suggest that change is often provoked by positive experiences” (p. 59).
Consider the implications of this idea for marriage and parenting. When we hope to motivate growth and change in a partner or child, we instinctively turn to telling them what they are doing wrong and how they ought to change . . . which usually results in defensiveness and a neverending cycle of accusation and recrimination. The new thinking on illusion suggests that it might be a better to thank family members for the things we enjoy about them rather than to prod them toward needed improvement. Maybe we are supposed to love rather than judge and criticize. Maybe the greatest motive for change is to be loved and appreciated. After all the Lord summed up all the law and the prophets in the commandment to love.
When the ancient disciples saw someone walking on the water toward their boat, they were troubled and cried out in fear. Jesus comforted them: ”Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” (Matthew 14:27). Because of Him, all of us may be everlastingly of good cheer. When we are assailed by the storms of life, we can look to Jesus. The social psychologist’s recommendation of optimism is related to God’s recommendation of faith and hope. Elder Maxwell (1981, pp. 123–4) has assured us:
The true believer can read the depressing signs of the times without being depressed, because he has a particularized and “perfect brightness of hope,” . . . the true believer knows that in the awful winding‑up scenes, human deterioration will be finally and decisively met by Divine intervention. . . . Therefore, let us become [true believers] and proceed to make our way, righteously and resolutely, notwithstanding our weaknesses, to the beckoning City of God. There the self‑assigned gatekeeper is Jesus Christ, who awaits us out of a deep divine desire to welcome us as much as to certify us; hence, “he employeth no servant there.” (2 Nephi 9:41.) If we acknowledge him now, he will lovingly acknowledge and gladly admit us then!
Maxwell, N. A. (1981 ). Notwithstanding my weakness. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
Peters, L. J. (1977). Peter’s quotations: Ideas for our time. New York: Bantam.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1999). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), The self in social psychology. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.