Having High Aspirations Can Lead to Depression

When people aspire to outcomes that they could not realistically expect to achieve, they become depressed.

In the 1942 film Now, Voyager, Bette Davis’s character ends with the line, "Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.” "Reach for the stars" has since become a trite platitude to encourage young people. From first graders to graduating college seniors, young people are consistently told that they can be and do anything that they set their minds to.

Except for the little problem of how to: A new study by Princeton psychology professor Margaret Frye and University of Queensland’s Katharine H. Greenaway and Tegan Cruwys reveals the paradox that more college students are excited about the future, yet simultaneously more down about it than ever. According to their research, these young people often aspire to outcomes that they could not realistically expect to achieve and, consequently, become depressed.

More college students are excited about the future, yet simultaneously more down about it than ever.

What’s key to note about this study is that these young people hoped for outcomes — such as high grades or levels of education — with little understanding how to achieve them. Hope, as a psychological concept, is a pretty muddy concept. Technically, it can be understood as a mental estimate of probabilities that outweigh the negative possibilities that would lead to fear; spiritually, it is often interpreted as faith, which ideally should persist no matter the odds.

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The researchers note that often there are significant discrepancies between young people’s actual selves (“a person’s representation of their existing abilities and qualities”) and their ideal selves (“a person’s representation of the abilities and qualities they aspire to possess”), which can lead to emotional pain and anxiety. It seems, then, that the hope that these college students experience most closely resembles a wish, so it’s no wonder then that nearly one-third of them report feelings of depression.

For the "actual" self to make the leap to the "ideal" one, one would have to dare themselves to accept the challenges and pitfalls that come with making that leap. Or, as Søren Kierkegaard said it best, “To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”


Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

Image courtesy of iStock

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