Pessimistic Attitude toward Goal Attainment May be Symptom of Depression

Lack of motivation is a common symptom of depression. Particularly, depressed people find it very difficult to motivate themselves to set goals and even more difficult to muster up the energy or determination to pursue them. “It remains unclear whether depression is characterized by a general deficit in goal motivation, or by a profile of decreased approach motivation and increased avoidance motivation,” said Joanne M. Dickson of the University of Liverpool and lead author of a new study that examined goal approach and avoidance in people with symptoms of depression.

Dickson and her colleagues enlisted 49 individuals for their study and administered a goal task to them. The researchers asked the participants to list several goals that they would like to achieve in the future and several that they would like to avoid, ranking them in order of importance, listing the top two goals for each category separately. Next, they were instructed to write reasons why they would or would not achieve or avoid the two goals, and report how likely it was that they would or would not achieve them.

The researchers found that there was no significant difference in what type of goals the participants with depression listed compared with those without. However, they did discover that the motivation and likelihood of achieving the goals was quite different for each group. “Depressed participants judged their (desirable) approach goal outcomes as significantly less likely to occur than controls, and showed a marginally significant tendency to judge their (undesired) avoidance goal outcomes as more likely to occur than controls,” said the team. “Thus, depressed participants were more pessimistic than controls about the likelihood of achieving goals, particularly for desirable outcomes.” They added, “An implication of these findings is that therapeutic efforts should focus on challenging negative thinking relating to goal pursuit, rather than merely encouraging depressed people to identify possible goals.”

Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., & Kinderman, P. (2011, May 9). Depressed People Are Not Less Motivated by Personal Goals But Are More Pessimistic About Attaining Them. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023665

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hollis


    October 2nd, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    I have been depressed before, and you are right. When you are depressed you do not feel motivated to do absolutely anything! The when I got through that though I started wondering whether I felt that lack of motivation because of being depressed or was it that I was not motivated to do anything to begin with and that that in turn contributed to becoming depressed? I have thought a lot about that because I never want to go through that horrible feeling of depression again. So of course I want to do anything that I can to avoid it. So now I try to stay busy doing things that I love and enjoy, and hopefully this will help to stave off any depression that could at some point begin creeping back into my life.

  • C Harris

    C Harris

    October 3rd, 2011 at 3:41 AM

    Hmm…I have trouble with goal setting,but I have never been through a major episode of depression…

    It’s like I function through the daily things and work fine but whenever there is something out of the daily routine I feel like it’s a bit too much and sometimes even avoid anything outside of my daily routine.

    How should I proceed…? Could it be depression?

  • Olivia


    October 3rd, 2011 at 4:16 AM

    Well if you can’t get motivated to even get up out of bed I would think that it would be pretty hard to meet any life goals too.

    My thoughts on this are that with treating depression it has to be taken in small steps.

    You first have to find the will to move a little and get life going again. The therapy, and the start working on goal setting and attainment. Trying to do it all at one time is bound to be overwhelming for anyone.

  • mick sadler

    mick sadler

    October 3rd, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    When you’re depressed it’s hard to visualize anything going right for you-it’s as simple as that. When I’m in a depressive slump the smallest of goals look unattainable. It’s much easier to imagine everything going wrong than going right.

  • Mimi D.

    Mimi D.

    October 3rd, 2011 at 10:45 AM

    When I’m going through depression I find it’s easier if I make goals that aren’t too much of a stretch to achieve. I don’t make them ludicrously easy, but I don’t make them as hard as I normally would.

    When I’m well I like them to be tough challenges as that motivates me. When I’m not so well, it’s the opposite.

  • kirstyedwards


    October 3rd, 2011 at 12:41 PM

    @Mimi D. – I agree. It’s important to remember too that goals are flexible and you can change them. I’ve rewritten mine countless times as my life has changed. They can’t possibly be static for eternity because your life isn’t. It’s good practice to review them at least once every few months if not sooner to see if they are taking you in the direction you want to go.

  • Clara Sanders

    Clara Sanders

    October 3rd, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    You need to be kind to yourself above all. Goals can be postponed or altered, and most of all they need to be realistic. If you make them too challenging to the point that you’ll never achieve them, that’s depressing by itself!

    There’s a fine balance between making a challenging goal and an impossible one. You want one that helps you grow as you reach for it, yet is not too simple as to feel you didn’t really do anything when you attain it. There’s no satisfaction in the latter kind.

  • p.v.


    October 3rd, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    When you’re depressed, everything in life is a different ball game and you need to make allowances for that when goal-setting too. We all need to make adjustments.

    Sometimes the best goal to make is to not set any goals for now. And sometimes it’s to set more as that will help you to recover from your depression. Your therapist or counselor will help guide you on that.

  • Chase


    October 3rd, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    So teaching them how to reach goals without having them set goals- seems a little like something is lacking here. Personally I think that there should be a little bit of both involved in the treatment. Yes they should be taught how to think about this in a more positive manner, but giving them something to strive toward is important too.

  • M.Samuels


    October 3rd, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    Depression can bog down a person like nothing else can. It is infectious too.

    When I have a major problem and am depressed there is not much I can do and even otherwise-easy tasks become somewhat difficult to proceed with.

    So yes, there surely is a link between goal attainment and depression.

  • Destiny


    October 4th, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    I think achieving a goal is a real boost when you’re depressed! It shows you that you can still function and overcome obstacles when you’re in a state of depression if you are willing and able to do the work to make that happen. I wouldn’t give up on goals completely at all or you’ll have nothing to look forward to.

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