The Accidental Optimist

39 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2012 Last revised: 15 May 2014

Date Written: 2013


In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus famously wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to the fundamental question of philosophy.” Camus was one of the greatest thinkers and writers of his day. He was also a widely recognized depressive. Writing at a time when psychology was only beginning to explore the processes of depression, Camus used narrative and language to explore the meaning and causes of the disease. Today, psychologists and researchers have the benefit of statistical models, neuroscience, longitudinal studies, and perhaps most importantly, of the new science of positive psychology — all of which are reshaping the way researchers and practitioners think about and address depression.

Lawyers and law students, a notoriously depressive population with unusually high rates of suicide and related ills, have provided fertile soil for some of the most recent depression research. Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the people credited with the invention of positive psychology, studied depressive thinking in law students at the University of Virginia. The resulting article, “Why Lawyers are Unhappy,” established, albeit inadvertently, the foundations of an increasingly widely-held view that, for some, depression is perhaps a necessary ill and may even be crucial to the success of those who work in judgment-driven fields like law. This article will explore the findings of the University of Virginia study and its impact on the current popular conception of lawyer and law-student psychology.

This article will argue that the best explanation for the UVA study's results lies in defensive pessimism, an idea that is consistently overlooked largely because of its technical and therefore counter-intuitive nature. The article will argue that students manifesting defensive pessimism are not necessarily at risk for depression, though they may not manifest "happiness" or "optimism" as psychology currently defines those concepts. The article challenges the notion that one's psyche must fit neatly into one or another category and suggests that, for a better understanding of defensive pessimism and what it might mean, we look both to current advances in psychology and neuroscience, and also to classical philosophy and concepts like Aristotilean eudaimonia. This article will go on to explore the relationship between defensive pessimism and the current theories of intrinsic motivation — theories that, together, cast some light on how to best utilize philosophical conceptions of happiness. Finally, this article will establish the importance of encouraging intrinsic motivation in law school learning and the implications such an explanation of the UVA results may have on conceptions of depression in the legal community and beyond.

Keywords: depression, hope, optimism, positive psychology, intrinsic motivation, motivation, suicide, mental health, thriving, thrive, learned helplessness, attribution style, explanatory style, Aristotle, eudiamonia, happiness, hope

JEL Classification: I20, I21, I29, K19, K30

Suggested Citation

Rosen, Corie Lynn, The Accidental Optimist (2013). Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law, 2013. Available at SSRN: or

Corie Lynn Rosen (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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