I’m not a clinician–I would never be able to master the non-judgmental part–but I’ve always been interested in psychological disorders. Given my other interests in functionalism and evolutionary psychology, I found a recent article by Andrews and Thomson about depression as an adaptation to be quite fascinating. Their basic idea was that psychological disorders should be rare (schizophrenia affects about 1% of the world’s population, while vastly reducing reproductive fitness), but depression is not rare at all. Nor does depression exclusively target those who are past reproductive age or who live in a particular culture.
An argument for depression as an adaptation suggests that something positive must be arising from the mood state, and Andrews and Thomson suggest several possibilities. The rumination that typically accompanies depression might encourage the analytical thinking needed to solve complex social problems. Depression also encourages social isolation, which Andrews and Thomson suggest helps the person avoid interruptions that interfere with problem solving.
While I agree with Andrews and Thomson on some points, I think one of the remaining issues is that depression is very complex, and can arise from many different sources. Andrews and Thomson suggest one functionalist view when they state that “depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving.” Depression can also be nature’s way of telling you that you majorly screwed up. Stop what you’re doing, figure out what went wrong, and learn to do things a different way. I’m always a little surprised at people who engage in self-destructive behaviors on a regular basis and then wonder why they’re not happy all the time.
In other cases, though, depression can result from an extreme loss, which all the mind activity in the world isn’t going to fix. In still other cases, depression seems to occur when no problems at all are on the horizon–this seems to me to be the most illogical and disordered of mood states. Your mood is supposed to match your circumstances.
Regardless of its source, depression is a very unpleasant state that people wish to escape as quickly as possible. I’m a fan of William James’ advice: To feel better, people are advised “to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act as if cheerfulness were already there.” Better yet, do something that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and avoid the things/people that usually make you feel grumpy. I know that if I’m feeling bugged by something, that a quick bout of gardening will fix things, while housework will make it worse. Needless to say, my garden looks better than my house