Let’s be honest: We’ve all — every single one of us — been visited by depression at some point or another.
Whether it’s curling up on the couch binge-watching Friends after a bad breakup, going on autopilot for a few months during an existential crisis, or wrestling for years with happiness and purpose and meaning, we’ve all encountered the debilitating experience of an emotional dip. From mild dysthymia to major depressive disorder, depression seems to be an inescapable part of life.
“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who — in addition to have a pretty badass name — knew a thing or two about the “black dog.” And it’s the fact that we don’t talk about it that makes depression such an isolating experience. Because it’s difficult, it becomes shameful, and because it’s shameful, it becomes hidden. Which is why depression goes largely undiscussed, despite the fact that 30 to 50 percent of people have met diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder at some point in their lives.
As René Girard put it, “Everyone thinks that he alone is condemned to hell, and that is what makes it hell.”
So let’s step out of it. First, by acknowledging the black dog openly. And second, by accepting, rather than suppressing, our negative emotional states. As we say on the show, we might not be able to avoid suffering entirely, but we can remove the belief that we shouldn’t be suffering in the first place — which is sometimes the biggest part of it.
Once we do, we open ourselves up to new ways of understanding our struggles. In the case of depression specifically, a ton of new research — in addition to personal experience with clients, listeners and myself — has revealed surprising and powerful insights into the hidden benefits of being blue. If we can appreciate those benefits, then not only will we be better equipped to deal with a downturn, but our emotional dips can also become one of our greatest assets.
But let’s be real.
The symptoms of depression — from apathy to social isolation, anhedonia to emptiness, sleeplessness to ruminations (i.e. the tendency to dwell on negative emotions and events) — are pretty damn difficult.
They can be scary, overwhelming, demoralizing and straight-up embarrassing. They can distance us from ourselves and our loved ones, and creep into everyday life like a miasmic fog. In some cases, they can grind life to a halt.
Depression sucks. No doubt about it.
I’m not here to dismiss the gravity of the experience, and I’m definitely not saying that depression is a blessing if we simply choose to see it that way. The mind is a lot more complicated than that, and clinical depression is a real phenomenon. Every person requires a different approach, source of help and set of values to treat it effectively. In some cases, the experience is just too overwhelming to view as a teacher. I get that.
Instead, I want to explore why these symptoms of depression seem to exist in human beings in the first place, how they might be operating in us, and whether they can help us — or at least offer to help us — in ways we didn’t expect.
That perspective might not “solve” depression in an instant, but it can help us finding new meaning in what seems like a monolithically crappy experience. And maybe that meaning is one of the keys — maybe the key — to lessening the burden.
The first thing we need to understand is that…
Depression has kept us alive.
On the face of it, depression seems like a fatal flaw in the human machine — a serious bug, an evolutionary handicap. After all, if depressive episodes keep us from engaging with life, how could it possibly aid in our survival? Why would our genes select for a trait that turns us into Toby from The Office? It seems obviously maladaptive.
But the structure of the human brain paints a different picture.
The brain, as researchers now understand well, consists of three parts working in cooperation. The oldest part is the reptilian brain, which controls instinctive behavior. The next oldest part is the mammalian brain, which regulates primary emotions (anger, sexual drive, and so on). The newest part is the neocortex, near the front of our brains, which governs advanced mental activity, speech production, decision making and control of emotions and behavior. It’s the neocortex that propelled Homo sapiens into modernity, and it’s the neocortex that accounts for our species’ most impressive (and destructive) accomplishments.
Mood disorders, broadly speaking, are linked to dysfunctions in the connections within and among these parts of the brain, and seem to involve the neocortex in particular. The same faculties that allow us to build skyscrapers, make art and sign peace treaties also produce problems that lead, among other things, to depression. Whether we consider depression a feature or a bug of that system, it is an essential part of it — a non-negotiable wrinkle in the fabric of our minds.
And this wrinkle helped keep our species alive.
One study, for example, found that some gene mutations for depression have remained in the human genome because they help defend against pathogen hosts. Certain depressive symptoms, like hyperthermia, reduced iron stores, hypervigilance and social withdrawal actually play a huge role in our ability to fight off infections. These behavioral and immunological responses basically acted as antibiotics before we developed modern medicine.
Another study found that seasonal affective disorder — the symptoms of recurrent winter depression — actually enhanced the likelihood of reproductive success by encouraging humans (especially women) to procreate at a time of year when their babies had a higher chance of survival. Depressive symptoms in winter also encouraged female–male pair-bonding, which improved the survival chances of both mothers and babies.
And another study (just one of many) concluded that mood disorders like depression might function to drive creativity, which is a hallmark of our species. We don’t need to be depressed in order to be great artists, but it does seem that depression — for reasons we’re about to get into — helps create the worldview, motivation and behaviors associated with creative work. Without it, we might not have built better huts, developed new tools or told meaningful stories. It might not be an accident that creative thinkers from Beyonce to Winston Churchill to Kid Cudi have openly wrestled with the black dog.
None of which is to say that the blues are a walk in the park. But when we realize that they are part of our evolutionary equipment — that they actually aided in our survival for a long time — it’s much easier to appreciate that depression might be more than just an existential bummer.
And if it’s gotten us to this point, then it’s probably still paying dividends. Partly through another unusual benefit, which is that…
Depression allows us to get deep and focus.
Depression has the interesting effect of shaping how we view the world. We usually paint that view as bleak — and it often is — but in other ways, it’s even richer than that of a happy mood.
Take this fascinating study, for example, which looked at how depression affects the processing of visual information.
When it came to viewing the world, researchers found that happier moods promote a greater focus on the “forest,” while sadder moods promote a greater focus on the “trees.” When given a drawing task, individuals in “sad” moods were less likely than those in “happy” moods to use a global concept to reproduce a drawing from memory. Similarly, when asked to classify geometric figures, those in sad moods were less likely to classify figures on the basis of global features. In other words, those in depressed states drew on detail and specificity, rather than on bigger-picture mental concepts.
The big takeaway?
Depression actually makes us more detail-oriented, more attentive to specificity, and more willing to analytically break down large problems into their component tasks.
This is a superpower for everyone from painters to financial analysts, graphic designers to supply-chain operators. How much better would we be at our jobs and our crafts if we leaned into the magnifying power of a dip?
Depression also serves our focus in other powerful ways.
Take social isolation, for example. We usually view the tendency to self-isolate as a troubling symptom of depression, but it’s also a clever way for the brain to divert our attention to the activities that need them most.
Avoiding social situations allows precious neuronal resources to be spent on more urgent tasks. Similarly, the temporary loss of pleasure associated with a dip often helps us stay engaged in more immediate activities, and avoid situations that would distract us from the task at hand — which might explain why truly committing to our work often seems to coincide with a certain sadness!
When we pathologize these symptoms, we tend to overlook how they might be serving us.
Depression envelopes us in a cocoon of deep concentration that can lead to major insights and productivity. It also keeps us from chasing the thousand stimuli that bombard us, especially in today’s world, so that we can actually achieve what we set out to do.
How differently would we feel about our dips if we embraced them as opportunities to go deeper into our work and hobbies?
Depression can improve your judgment, especially around people.
While the black dog seems to chase away our zest for life, a new body of research shows that it can actually enhance our judgments about it — especially in social settings.
Consider this awesome experiment, in which researchers found that people are more likely to make social misjudgments when they’re happy.
When participants were asked to look for deception in statements by people who were accused of theft (some were guilty, some were not), those in negative moods were dramatically better at distinguishing between deceptive and truthful suspects. The key takeaway?
Depression might be a bummer, but it literally makes us better judges of character.
A related study on trivia questions revealed another benefit to the blues. In that experiment, only sad participants were able to correctly distinguish between the true and false claims they were shown after a two-week period, while happy participants tended to believe that what is familiar is, in fact, true. It was the sad participants who were able to overcome this cognitive bias, perhaps through greater sensitivity and interest in paying attention to what was true and what was false.
But the benefits extend beyond deception.
Other studies from the same team showed that sad moods reduce biases such as the fundamental attribution error — the tendency to incorrectly explain someone’s behavior in terms of their character or intention, rather than external factors.
While the human mind tends to believe that what people do fundamentally reflects who they are, sadness seems to counteract that phenomenon, possibly by appreciating that there’s more to other people than their external behavior — a critical perspective for healthy relationships.
Depression is actually a hidden superpower in situations that require keen observation.
Gauging someone on a first date, reading a vendor during negotiations and evaluating a candidate in a job interview all seem to benefit from a moderately “sad” or depressive outlook.
In these moods, we tend to check our instinctive willingness to believe what we’re told, and we assess social cues, facial gestures and factual information with more scrutiny and insight.
In other words, depression promotes a more detailed, accurate and attentive style of judgment, which is a huge asset in a society that is often trying to persuade or mislead us. The blues might in fact be nature’s way of helping us combat the deception it knows we’ll encounter in the world.
Depression builds empathy.
The connection between depression and empathy is a little complicated.
On the one hand, some studies have found that depression impairs our ability to empathize properly with other people.
One of those experiments showed that depressed participants had a heightened reaction toward others’ distress, which could contribute to symptoms like social withdrawal and avoidance. Another found that while depressed people often have normal or elevated levels of empathy, they also often blame themselves — unrealistically — for other people’s pain.
So it seems like depression can really mess with our empathy, either by magnifying the distress that it sees in other people, or by internalizing that distress so much that we end up taking on an inappropriate burden.
On the other hand, depression enhances our empathy in profound and critical ways.
Those who have been through a blue period — and know just how distressing the experience is — have a greater capacity to relate to other people going through a tough time. While suffering isn’t required for compassion, it often helps.
In fact, this might be another evolutionary function of depression: to give us a shared experience of emotional distress with which to relate to other human beings, particularly during difficult periods, when they need it most.
That empathy held tribes and families together, and it now holds communities, companies and couples together. Therapists, entrepreneurs, managers and coaches know this better than anyone. They understand that personal experience with emotional pain — especially depression — allows them to relate to their patients, employees, teammates and clients.
But that superpower is available to us too.
When we embrace our emotional challenges, we can use them to appreciate what the people around us are going through. We can offer them perspective and hope, and we can remember that we’re not alone in that experience. This is the lifeblood of deep relationships. It’s also the key to trust and rapport.
Would we be able to connect in that way without our negative emotional states? Would happiness alone give us that deep well of empathy to draw on in relationships? The evidence seems to suggest that depression, for all its difficulties, is also the “glue” that holds us together.
Embracing depression helps us cope with emotional challenges.
We are all searching for joy and fulfillment in life, but our cultural obsession with happiness — and our simultaneous fear of sadness — might actually be doing us serious harm.
As one prominent study found, over-promoting happiness actually increases rumination in response to failure. At the same time, promoting the avoidance of negative emotional states also correlated with increased rumination, with downstream ramifications for overall well being.
In other words, when we obsess about being happy and actively avoid being depressed, we impair our ability to respond effectively to negative emotional experiences.
When we try to select our moods, denying the natural ebbs and flows of our blue periods, we often end up inadvertently contributing to them. The obsessive mental chatter associated with depression doesn’t stop when we consciously decide to not be blue.
On top of that, believing that we should only be happy creates yet another emotional burden that can eclipse the original depression itself.
In fact, people who find negative emotional states useful — which is hopefully the direction we’re heading here! — experienced a weaker link between their negative moods and their emotional and physical health. As one fascinating study found, negative moods only correlated with low life satisfaction in people who didn’t perceive adverse feelings as helpful or pleasant.
Which is another powerful reminder that finding meaning in our suffering might actually be the best way of reducing it — and of extracting insight from our struggles.
Depression enhances resilience.
On the face of it, depression seems to rob us of desire and motivation. But people who have wrestled with depression — including hundreds of our clients and listeners — point to their struggles with depression as a key element of their long-term resilience.
The reason, of course, is that resilience only grows in response to adversity — just as muscles grow in response to weight — and depression is one of the most profound sources of adversity we’ll encounter.
The body of research in this field is massive, but one of the most important voices in resilience research belongs to George Bonanno, head of the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia University. In multiple studies, he zeroed in on one of the most important variables in resilience: perception.
In short, Bonnano found that the variation in resilience among study participants came down to whether they thought about a stressful experience as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow — which brings us to the heart of what we’ve been exploring in this piece.
When we view depression as inherently bad and automatically traumatic — which is easy to do when the symptoms are so difficult — we immediately form a relationship to our mood that chips away at our resilience.
This is why depression, when it goes unexamined, becomes so damn debilitating. When our thoughts about depression don’t change, depression has free rein to sap us of our resources.
But when we choose to look at our depression as an opportunity to learn — which starts by looking at what it can offer us — we simultaneously build our resilience.
We discover strength, patience and curiosity. We find interesting questions and arrive at meaningful answers. We discover that if we’ve weathered the storm once, it becomes easier to weather it again. And not just because we’ve been through it already, but because we know that the process can actually help us grow as human beings.
Chris, a listener of the show, recently told me a story that captured this perfectly.
After beating himself up for over a decade for his intermittent depression, he finally decided to view it as evidence that he could survive his emotional ups and downs. His entrepreneurial battles and family squabbles were nothing compared to his dips, which suddenly gave him a tremendous amount of confidence in dealing with the rest of life’s challenges.
After he made that mental shift, he said, he found himself bringing his depression — or rather, his experience with depression — into his relationships. He used it to better understand his employees, found that it made him more perceptive during customer interviews, and humanized him with new friends and partners, from whom he used to hide this part of himself.
Chris still finds his emotional dips unpleasant, but they’re no longer devoid of meaning. They serve a purpose in his life. They give him an edge in certain critical areas — an edge that many others don’t have. And they exist to make him more resilient, precisely because he’s had to deal with them for so long.
Without depression, Chris told me, he isn’t sure he would have stuck with his start-up or worked on his relationships. The most impressive part about his story, though, is that viewing depression in this way was a conscious choice on his part.
It was only when he decided to study his depression and use it as a teacher — exactly what we’re doing here — did he find a way to use his moods to his advantage. To mean something.
Chris’ story reminded me of a John Keats quote that I love.
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
A way back to ourselves.
Most advice about depression is designed to reduce it, and there’s certainly a need for that. But in our quest to avoid depression, we often end up alienating ourselves from ourselves, by cutting off big parts of our mental-emotional lives.
This is where the quest to overcome depression often gets us into even more trouble. The social isolation of depression is bad enough without also disconnecting from who we really are.
Understanding — and constantly acknowledging — the hidden benefits of depression brings us one step closer back to ourselves.
This is not to say that we should succumb to depression, or that it’s a fixed fact of life, or that it’s the only defining characteristic we have. (This is a common fiction of depression, and a debilitating trap.) But it is to say that we don’t need to sidestep ourselves in order to heal ourselves. By embracing our depression, we can embrace other parts of ourselves we would have missed. We can find a teacher where we would have only found a problem.
When it comes to the black dog, we have a lot of questions. Why me? Why do I feel like this? What can I do to not feel so bad?
But there are other questions we aren’t taught to ask. What does this have to teach me? How does it make me more of who I am? How can I use it to my advantage?
How do we begin asking those questions instead?
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness
comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
We might not need to cure depression in order to overcome it. We might just need to allow it, and discover that it’s part of a much bigger picture.
Extra Research Notes
According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people around the world present with symptoms of depression , while depressive disorders constitute nearly 4.3% of the global burden of all diseases . More than half of the people who have undergone an episode of depression will be affected by at least one relapse. After two episodes of the disease, the probability of another episode is as high as 80%. Episodes of depression last more than 24 months in 20% of patients . Another depressive episode will appear within the next two years of discharging from the hospital in almost half of hospitalized patients. It is estimated that some 20% of those affected with diagnosed recurrent depressive disorders experience two depressive stages during their life, and 60% have three or more such episodes (average number: 3 to 4). Every successive episode is associated with a less positive prognosis and, often, a poorer response to pharmacological treatment .
[Featured image by Jan Matejko]