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The Surprising Benefits of Depression

No one talks about the benefits of depression, do they? No one talks about how depression might happen for a good reason. 

Most people assume it’s nothing but a bad thing. A product of low courage. A cancer of the mind.

And perhaps it is?

When you examine depression on paper, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. I mean, I hardly need to outline the costs associated with depression, do I?

But this got me thinking, given how costly depression clearly is, why do so many people suffer from it?

I mean, if there truly is no upshot, then why has evolution not weeded it out? If it is a malfunction then why isn’t it far rarer, like other emotional disorders?

Why do somewhere between 30 to 50% of the population suffer from a significant bout of depression at some point in their lives?

Honestly, I never considered these questions before. Despite suffering from depression for over a decade, I just assumed something was wrong with me.

A malfunction akin to a broken spirit.

But then I read this article in Scientific America. What I found blew my mind wide open.

The Purpose of Depression

Without wanting to bore you too much, some researchers did a bunch of tests on some poor little rodents examining a particular receptor in the brain that binds to serotonin (the molecule that is the target of most anti-depressant drugs).

What these scientists found was that the composition of the functional part of this receptor was 99% similar to that of humans, suggesting that natural selection had preserved it for a good reason.

Put another way; depression is an adaptation not a malfunction. It serves an important function.

The million-dollar question is what the fuck?

I mean, what function could depression possibly serve to justify the heavy costs? What on earth, may I ask, is so useful about depression?

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

A primary symptom of depression is rumination. Depressed people often think intensely about their own problems — they have difficulty thinking about anything else. (Welcome to my hell.)

Studies have shown this kind of thinking is highly analytical. When faced with a complex problem, this can actaully be a helpful response. 

After doing a little more research into this topic I found that depressed individuals:

  1. process information more deeply.
  2. are more accurate at complex tasks.
  3. make better judgments on detail-oriented information.
  4. make more accurate cost-benefit analyses.

It turns out that depression may well be designed to help solve complex problems.

Depression Helps You Solve Complex Problems

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s worth shouting from the rooftops!

If this theory is correct — should you happen to suffer from depression — we can immediately clarify two things.

  • Either you have an actual problem that needs to be solved,
  • or you believe you do.

The former means you have to figure out a solution to this problem (and then solve it).

The latter means you need to figure out what false belief is driving your depression and then go about changing it.

Happily for you — unhappily for me — I’ve experienced depression for both reasons.

The first related to low self-esteem — the perceived belief something was wrong with me. The second came from ending my 12-year aviation career, which threw me into an existential midlife crisis.

I just assumed it was low self-esteem crawling out of the woodwork again. But after several therapy sessions, my therapist told me it was her professional opinion that I have a healthy self-esteem.

I was glad to hear it, but it completely threw me. If my depression wasn’t related to low self-esteem, what on earth was going on?

After reading this article, the proverbial apple smacked me over the head.

My mind simply wanted clarity.

It wanted to know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It was telling me to sort this out as a matter of urgency.

Now, you could argue even this was a perceived problem rather than an actual crisis. However, divorcing from a 12-year career was bound to throw me into something of a depression.

Indeed depression typically follows significant life changes. Think about the loss of a loved one or postpartum depression.

The mistake people make for this reason is assuming that depression is a kind of sadness. 

But that’s wrong.

Depression is related to the problem posed. How am I going to provide for this newborn? How am I going to navigate this world without my life partner?

Depression is nature’s way of telling you you have a complex problem the mind is intent on solving.

Why This Understanding is So Important

Why is this understanding so damn important?

Think about this.

Most clinicians/researchers believe that depressive rumination is part of the problem — that you can’t quote, “can’t think yourself out of an emotional problem.”

But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if depression isn’t an emotional problem, fundamentally, but a problem-solving problem?

What if thinking your way out of depression is exactly what you’re supposed to do?

Now consider this.

If depressive rumination were genuinely harmful, interventions that encourage deep thinking should cause depressive symptoms to worsen.

But the opposite is true.

Several studies have found that expressive writing promotes quicker resolution of depression, and they suggest that this is because depressed people gain insight into their problems.”

Indeed carefully writing about oneself is linked to all sorts of health benefits.

If this is correct, then therapies should encourage depressive rumination rather than papering the cracks by subscribing anti-depressants.

It might well be the case that the modern mental health crisis is a product of us all having become weaker thinkers. 

Instead of engaging in some deep thinking when our mind is telling us to do so, we are drowning ourselves in a sea of distraction.

Something to Think About

I should finish by adding a few important caveats.

  • First and foremost, this is but one theory. When it comes to depression, there are numerous. This is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.
  • Second, for specific individuals, depression may well be an emotional problem or malfunction. It’s a complex beast, after all.
  • Finally, most importantly, I’m not a mental healthcare professional. (At least not yet.) I’m simply sharing my thoughts based on some research I’ve done.

If you’re reading this thinking, “Well, duh? Didn’t you know this already?”

I would say, fair enough. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’m last to the party. However, I strongly suspect I’m not alone in my ignorance.

If you weren’t aware that depression is, in fact, a normal response for the majority of people, well, that’s definitely something worth thinking about.

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37 thoughts on “The Surprising Benefits of Depression

  1. Although I am not normally given to depression, what you have said seems to make sense. I have never heard this before. Very interesting. Thank you for this post.

    1. Nor had I! And I’ve read so many psychology books! I wonder why the theory isn’t better known. It makes perfect sense to me. Thanks Don 🙏

  2. Totally agree. Depression has its purposes. Mostly, to help someone resolve a problem. Of course, the problem, at its core, might be a chemical imbalance. Often, it’s a result of trauma – and is the body and mind’s way of protecting itself. This is why we need therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists alike!

  3. My personal experiences with depression mesh very well with this line of thinking. My own depression resulted in deep problem-solving in my life to be able to move forward.

    I’d like to add another layer that I discovered, which is: when we doubt our abilities or feel trapped by our circumstances because we don’t see the way out, depression kicks in. It did for me.

    For me, since my self worth was extremely low, I saw possible solutions, but just assumed that since I was a loser, only winners could actually hope to implement the solutions and hope to succeed. This was because I had internalized the negative messaging told to me throughout my life.

    I realized that I didn’t like myself at all, so was subconsciously self-sabotaging to prove to myself I was a failure. I figured I needed to teach myself to like myself, but didn’t know how to do it, which sent me researching what I needed to do.

    (I think I need to add this information to my books!) My books were written to help others possibly shorten their search times, if I could share some of the steps I had discovered.

    This post seems to accurately describe what happens and why depression can help us. If we (collectively) can change our perceptions of depression, we can possibly help many more people, even those who self-medicate through drugs and alcohol.

    1. Thank you for sharing Tamara. I’ve had a similar experience. That’s when we get ourselves into a lot of trouble. When we have a problem we don’t believe we can solve. Or believe we are the problem that can’t be solved.

      I also believe this idea could help a lot of people who see depression as a sign there’s something with them. Rather than understanding that’s it’s a result of believing there’s a problem that needs to be solved. That understanding could make all the difference. 🙏

      1. Yes, this is important to share. Years ago I had a counselor who told me my depression was situational, and by working on the situation, I’d help myself. That stuck with me. Then I learned about cognitive therapy where depression patients are taught to change their thoughts.

  4. “It might well be the case that the modern mental health crisis is a product of us all having become weaker thinkers.” This is fascinating. I’ve often wondered why we’ve seen an explosion in mental health concerns, and I don’t believe we can put it down to increased openness and awareness. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, AP2!

    1. It might also be the case that we live in a time where all the worlds problems are our own. Yet many of these problems are beyond any one of us. I do believe solving problems brings happiness. But we better make sure we’re concentrating on solving problems within our circle of control. Thank you Michelle. 🙏

  5. Thank you for this post.

    I hope it is ok that I share one of my favourite poems, from Jalaluddin Rumi

    This being human is a guest house.

    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,some momentary awareness comesas an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!

    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,who violently sweep your houseempty of its furniture,still, treat each guest honorably.

    He may be clearing you outfor some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,meet them at the door laughing,and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,because each has been sentas a guide from beyond.

    1. I love that poem. Thank you so much sharing. Indeed I believe we do need to welcome depression when it arrives at our door. To see it as a response designed to help us rather than hurt us. That perspective change could change everything. 🙏

  6. That’s a concept I’ve never heard of before. I found it very comforting knowing I have several family members who’ve been diagnosed with depression.

    1. Not had I. It makes me wonder why this knowledge isn’t more well known. The article is over 10 years old. I believe this should be common knowledge. From personal experience I know this information could have helped me tremendously. I hope it helps others. Thank you taking the time to read and comment 🙏

  7. Great, thanks. I guess this means I’m depressed (based on the problem solving list) but that is subjective not objective, or am I just over thinking? Great post I enjoyed it, I have several friends who are diagnosed as depressed.

    1. I think it’s possible to be those things and not be depressed. That’s on average. Although I wonder if further research might reveal that all of us enter a mini depression whenever we are tasked with solving complex problems on say an exam? Thanks Danny 🙏

  8. Thank you for writing this article. Depression is a complex experience, not without its purpose in our world. At the end of the day, I feel the reality of it will help shed light on the darkness in the world. Like any other experience, the key dynamic appears to be not to develop an attitude about it one way or another.

    1. Reminds of a mark Manson article I read entitled fuck your feelings. The major point of which was exactly that. Don’t have an attitude about them. Just let them be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ari 🙏

  9. I really enjoyed this. You made a lot of interesting points – the one about writing one’s way to clarity certainly resonates.

    I liked the emphasis on sadness not being a requirement of depression. A lot of people don’t understand that. I still think the name needs work.

    You didn’t explicitly reference the difference between internal and external causes of depression though you gave personal examples of both types, and I think it remains an important distinction when it comes to paths of treatment (DSM-V’s opinion notwithstanding).

    1. I agree. I could certainly go a lot deeper with such a complex subject. Even this theory won’t apply in all cases.

      I never thought about a different name for the condition. That’s a good idea.

      I think when it comes to external versus internal causes the overriding point remains. Whether we believe it’s a problem or not, that’s what it becomes. Even in death, with the right perspective, it doesn’t have to be looked at as a problem. I think the link to low self esteem is crucial because a – those with low self esteem are more likely to believe they have a problem when they don’t (and are also more likely to create problems for themselves) and b – they don’t believe they have what it takes to solve those problems. That’s when we get trapped in it.

      Thank you for adding your thoughts Michelle. Some great points. 🙏

  10. This theory is very interesting David, and the question ´ What if depression isn’t an emotional problem, fundamentally, but a problem-solving problem? ´ changes completely the idea I had before. Actually, depression, as explained by this theory, may be very useful in life. And writing can definitely help, I also read a lot about the power of writing in treating depression and for sure it’s better than anti-depressants as sometime they may be very harmful and dangerous.

    1. The theory shattered all my previously held beliefs about depression. The more I think about it the more convinced I am by it. It makes so much sense – at least, based on personal experience. I journal every evening. It always has a positive effect on my mental well being. Thanks Cristiana 🙏

  11. Surprised. Never knew it is like this. I always thought it is a plain comparing a life to another and wanting something else. Thank you.

    Do you mind if I link your article to my blog?

    1. It surprised me too. The moment I read about it it just made so much sense to me I felt I had to share. Please feel free to link to your blog. Thanks for taking the time to read/comment/ask. 🙏

  12. What a super- interesting and well written post. Your theory makes total sense. Thanks AP2!

  13. Good to see someone add a positive twist to such a paralysing emotional state. I guess it’s like how fear is a good emotion that tells you to flee or fight. Thanks

    1. Depression has its uses – at least short term. It’s particularly harmful if lived in for a long period of time. Fear, depression, anxiety – they all serve a purpose. We certainly shouldn’t view them as inherently bad – even if they feel negative. What’s important for us is determining whether our reactions are grounded in reality or not. Thank you for taking the time to comment/read. 🙏

  14. This is interesting, I agree with so much of it but I also do feel compelled to make a distinction. I struggle with depression, PTSD and Anxiety disorders. I say disorders cause everyone goes through depression and anxiety at sometime or another in their lives, they only become disorders when they make your life unmanageable. I get annoyed when someone says “omg, I am depressed” or “I suffer from anxiety” as though they weren’t normal part of human brain function.

    When it isn’t a constant that keeps you from your life, anxiety and depression serve a purpose. Anxiety is there to tell you that something is important to you and lists all the ways it can go wrong so you can prepare for the worst. Depression serves as a reminder that there is some underlying problem that needs addressing, that can be grief, unresolved pain, whatever it might be.

    With that difference in mind, I am thinking that you are talking about depression, not a disorder. I know, there really should be more education on this. It is a very important thing to understand. When people end their lives, it isn’t because they couldn’t find a solution to their problem, it is most likely that they couldn’t manage their life anymore.

    I guess what I wanted to convey in my very long comment is that, it is important to differentiate a problem from a natural phenomenon. I appreciate that you brought the natural phenomenon into light and also made sure to mention that there were other reasons why it happens.

    1. I was talking about depression – to point out that it’s not a disorder fundamentally. I think the major issue with depression – like anxiety or most other “negative” emotions – is it’s not meant to be lived in long term. That’s when it becomes problematic, as you rightly point out. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s a great point your raise. Wishing you well 🙏

  15. As much as depression sucks as a feeling, it’s very true that it’s often a sign something isn’t right and you need to make a change. I’ve noticed in the past when I’ve felt really depressed it’s because some things weren’t working and it was a sign for me to either make a change or let something go. This is moreso with situational depression, though. If depression is caused by a hormonal imbalance or some other biological function then it’s a little more complex and it may need real treatment.

    1. That’s spot on Sara. It may well be related to a hormonal imbalance. Always wise to seek professional guidance in any case. Thank you for lending your thoughts. 🙏

  16. This post is amazing. I was likewise depressed for over 5 years. And I find one of the greatest benefits it provided for me was experience. As we all got older, many of my friends started getting depressed as well, bland because I had gone through it, I was equipped and ready to be there for them and help guide them towards a direction that would be of be benefit.

    Motivational and spiritual blogger:

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