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From “Sadder but Wiser” to the Happy Realist

Why debunking depressive realism matters for leaders and workplaces.

Key points

  • Depressed individuals were once assumed to have a more realistic perspective on what they can control than their sad peers.
  • Oversimplified, the "sadder but wiser" hypothesis has at times led to a misperception that happy individuals are simply deluded.
  • New research suggests that the once widely accepted "sadder but wiser" hypothesis may not hold true after all.

For many decades, a widely held and widely taught hypothesis suggested that sadder people are more realistic about what they can and cannot control than their happy counterparts. Unsurprisingly, this hypothesis not only seeped into psychology textbooks but also influenced leadership and management theories. Recently, this hypothesis has been turned on its head, and the implications may be significant.

The Sadder but Wiser Hypothesis

In the late 1970s, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson carried out four experiments with 144 undergraduate students classified as either depressed or nondepressed. Over the course of their experiments, they found that the depressed group had a more accurate or realistic sense of their ability to control situations than the non-depressed group. The experiments gave rise to what Alloy and Abramson would eventually describe as “depressive realism,” or the hypothesis that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. But does the “sadder but wiser” hypothesis hold true across demographics and contexts?

Debunking Depressive Realism

In a 2022 study, Amelia S. Dev and colleagues attempted to recreate Alloy and Abramson’s 1979 study. This time, they relied on a larger sample and included a group of Amazon MTurk workers, as well as a group of undergraduates. Both groups were asked to complete a classic contingency task and an overconfidence task and were assessed for both depression and anxiety. The researchers then measured the participants’ perceived control while completing the tasks.

In sharp contrast to Alloy and Abramson, Dev and colleagues found no evidence that depressive symptoms were linked to illusory control or overconfidence. As they concluded, “The ‘sadder but wiser’ hypothesis argues that depression enhances accuracy in judgment … Our results contradict these claims. We do not find that depressive symptoms correlate consistently with assessments of personal control. The implication is that errors in the assessment of personal control or overconfidence do not appear to be integral to depression.”

While Dev et al.’s study isn’t the first attempt to call Alloy and Abramson’s hypothesis into question (see Moore and Fresco’s 2012’s literature review for an overview of studies that have previously tested the hypothesis), it is arguably one of the most definitive rebuttals yet. Dev et al’s study may also have broad-reaching implications for how we think about depression, delusion, and confidence, including in the workplace.

Rise of the Happy Realist

The flip side of “sadder but wiser” was long assumed to be “happier but delusional.” Put simply, if sadder or depressed individuals have a more realistic sense of what they can and cannot control, it seemed to follow that happier individuals, who assume they can control various outcomes, are simply a bit delusional. And this is where the “sadder but wiser” thesis has proved especially damaging in the context of the workplace.

Through the lens of the “sadder but wiser” paradigm, it is easy to assume there are essentially two types of employees: those who are depressed but realistic about what they can control on the job and those who are happy but somewhat deluded about their working conditions. In reality, the world of work is far more complex, and this is where the “happy realist” comes in.

Over the past two decades, a growing body of research has been generated on happiness in the workplace. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that happy employees are more productive, less likely to quit, and also less likely to engage in quiet quitting. However, much of this research has failed to drill down on who these employees really are, leaving the impression that happy employees are simply those who love their jobs and organizations without question. In fact, happy employees are often highly realistic, arguably even more realistic than their sad counterparts.

As a case in point, consider the fact that happy workers are frequently those who are willing to take on increasing challenges at work. In this respect, the happiest employees aren’t those who are simply “blissed out,” coasting along or deluded, as the “sadder but wiser” hypothesis once seemed to imply. Rather, they are those employees most likely to engage in purposeful struggle. Said differently, they are happy and realistic enough to appreciate that, ultimately, job satisfaction is contingent on pushing oneself to pursue, not avoid, life’s and work’s greatest challenges.


Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108(4), 441–485.

Dev, A. S., Moore, D. A., Johnson, S. L., & Garrett, K. (2022, September 15). Sadder ≠ Wiser: Depressive Realism is not Robust to Replication. PsyArXiv,

Moore, M. T., & Fresco, D. M. (2012). Depressive realism: a meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 32(6), 496–509.

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