February 21, 2020   8:57am

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Depressed? That’s great!

Next time you have a low mood, you might want to thank your body for trying to look out for you. According to The Economist article “The evolutionary origin of depression: Mild and Bitter,” depression may be an evolutionary trait designed to keep you from wasting energy on unattainable goals.

“[Psychologist and researcher in evolutionary medicine at the University of Michigan Randolph Nesse’s] hypothesis is that, as pain stops you doing damaging physical things, so low mood stops you doing damaging mental ones– in particular, pursuing unreachable goals. Pursuing such goals is a waste of energy and resources. Therefore, he argues, there is likely to be an evolved mechanism that identifies certain goals as unattainable and inhibits their pursuit– and he believes that low mood is at least part of that mechanism.”

This hypothesis is backed by a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In it the depression of teenage girls was monitored by measuring “goal adjustment capacities” of 97 girls aged 15-19 during 19 months. Those more willing to disengage from unattainable goals experienced mild depression and were less likely to suffer from major depression in the future.

“Mild depressive symptoms can therefore be seen as a natural part of dealing with failure in young adulthood. They set in when a goal is identified as unreachable and lead to a decline in motivation. In this period of low motivation, energy is saved and new goals can be found. If this mechanism does not function properly, though, severe depression can be the consequence.”

Dr Nesse also poses that since Americans tend to rely heavily on persistence and achieving ones goals no matter how big (i.e. The American Dream), this could be why our country has the highest depression rate. Thus, according to the article, “Depression may turn out to be an inevitable price of living in a dynamic society.”


The Economist, “The evolutionary origin of depression: Mild and Bitter,” June 27, 2009

Snoety symbol
Amanda says: August 12th, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Interesting that this research was done by a man, when women suffer disproportionately from depression.
Perhaps society’s unrealistic expectations are even more so for young women? (I would say they are, regarding physical appearance alone…never mind “having it all” i.e., career & family.)
And perhaps more young women than men are sent the message that their goals are unreachable, rather than being encouraged to dream and strive?

Harriett says: August 12th, 2009 at 5:37 pm

I think you’re right on some points; however, I think that the message is that you should dream and strive and your goal’s not unreachable but you still need to be perfect in appearance and manner. Sigh. All the more impossible.

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