Choosing Sadness: The Irony of Depression

I knew a man some years ago who suffered from serious and chronic depression. He also lived what seemed to me a melancholy life, listening to sad, sentimental music, reading dreary existential novels, and rarely venturing out of his dark and gloomy house. I cared for this man, and I was perplexed by this. I knew that he suffered from a debilitating disease, but he also didn’t seem to be taking simple steps that might lift his mood. It was almost like he was choosing sadness.

This seems like an ungenerous thought, I know, but it turns out there may be some truth to it. Hebrew University psychological scientist Maya Tamir and her colleagues have been studying how people with depression regulate their emotions, and they may have an explanation for my acquaintance’s paradoxical and forlorn lifestyle choices.

Emotional regulation is the process of changing one’s current emotions into more desirable ones. We all do it all the time. It’s well known and not all that surprising that depressed people have difficulty with emotion regulation, but Tamir believes that we have been looking at emotion dysregulation the wrong way. Specifically, we’ve been assuming that depression is linked to deficits in regulation strategies, when in fact the problem may have to do with regulation goals.

The distinction between strategies and goals is crucial. Some strategies are adaptive and others not. For example, cognitive reappraisal is a healthy strategy for most people, one that involves rethinking and changing the meaning of situations so that they generate different emotions. Situation selection is another–choosing positive stimuli like movies and music. Rumination, very common in depression, is an example of a maladaptive regulation strategy. There is some evidence that depressed people use maladaptive strategies, but Tamir thinks that focusing on the effectiveness of emotional regulation may be missing —> Read More