Life is too messy for absolute certainty. And that’s a fact.


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.

It’s easy to see why absolutism might trigger distress: the more rigid your map of the world – about how things are, how they should be, how well you should perform, how others should treat you – the more opportunities you’re creating for that map to collide with the messiness of reality. Which clarifies something not just about depression, but about our current politics, dominated as it is on all sides by politicians who seem absolutely sure of themselves.

It’s natural to want a leader with a clear plan. But as the radical economist Charles Eisenstein puts it, when “society has reached a place where the usual plans and usual answers [aren’t] working”, that clarity becomes a liability: “A leader who thinks he knows what to do but actually just wants to re-enact something from the past isn’t going to be very helpful – maybe we do actually need somebody who says, ‘I don’t know what to do.’” When your map of the world is systematically leading you astray, step one for finding your way is to throw away the map. To read more from Oliver Burkeman, click here.