Depression is good for you?

A new study by Doctor Paul Keedwell of the Institute of Psychiatry suggests that depression might not be as much of a bummer as we think.

Keedwell points out that the depressive gene must have some evolutionary benefits to have survived this long.

“I have received e-mails from ex-sufferers saying in retrospect it probably did help them because they changed direction, a new career for example, and as a result they’re more content day-to-day than before the depression.”

One woman left an abusive relationship and moved on, he says, and might not have done if depression had not provided the necessary introspection.

Similarly, unrealistic expectations are revised when depression sparks a more humble reassessment of strengths and weaknesses.

The idea, once popular in CBT and positive psychology, that depression is just ‘bad’, and that we should all try to be as happy bunnies as possible, has become somewhat dated.

Even Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and once the global cheerleader for happiness and positive emotion, told me in an interview earlier this year that he now recognizes that people with depressive personalities might nonetheless lead far more meaningful lives – in terms of the effect of their lives on the lives of other people – than happier people.

He gave the example of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom suffered from bouts of depression.

It’s difficult to generalize about why some people who have bouts of depression go on to achieve great things. Sometimes, their depression arises because they have great expectations and ambitions, which are then thwarted. They don’t then necessarily change or lessen their ambitions – sometimes the world just catches up with them, and they fulfil their ambitions, so feel happier.

That was, arguably, the case with Churchill. He wasn’t necessarily made more sympathetic or more self-analytical by his depression. Quite the opposite. His doctor, Lord Moran (my great-grandad, I’m proud to say), says he was distinguished by an amazing ability NOT to question his decisions or brood over them, at least during the hecticness of war.

I wonder, however, if the experience of battling depression helped him in the black days of 1941, when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany and it looked like we were going to be conquered. Churchill was mentally prepared for that situation, used to pressing on even when the situation seemed immensely bleak.

In other cases, I think depression can help people achieve great things, simply because they never feel they have done well enough. The voice in their head never tells them ‘congratulations, you’ve got somewhere, you’ve made it’, so they are restlessly driven onwards , onwards, to try and validate their existence in production.

I’m not sure that’s what Keedwell is talking about – he’s implying that a bout of depression can be a growing experience that helps us become a more whole and realized person.

Maybe. But the depressive fear of failure and nothingness can also be a tremendous spur to action. The depressive keeps achieving, like a shark that keeps swimming because if it stopped for a moment, it would sink.

There’s a wider point here, which is that success is not the same as happiness. Our civilization and our economy depends on restlessness, unhappiness, emptiness, the desperate search for approval and acceptance.

It is these negative feelings that drive civilization forward, that keep the scientist in their laboratory, or the lawyer in their office, or the banker at their trading desk, or the shopper in the mall.

If we all accepted ourselves just as we were, GDP would plummet. So in that sense, depression is certainly ‘good’ for the survival and expansion of our society.

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