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The Psychological Mistakes People Make That Lead to Misery

We've never had so much advice about how to feel better. So why do we feel so much worse?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper staff photographer


The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Rottenberg's new book, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014). Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

The puzzling reality is that human depression is increasing in an era when environmental conditions are relatively benign. The average citizen in Western society now lives longer, is less likely to starve, and enjoys considerably greater wealth than his sixteenth-century counterpart. Presumably these objective conditions for survival and reproduction would cause depression rates to fall, not rise to nearly one in five citizens. This environment-depression disconnect seems less strange when we appreciate that there are additional human-specific routes into depression. Homo sapiens has the dubious distinction of being a species that can become depressed without a major environmental insult.

There is no scientific consensus about why human depression rates are rising in the industrialized world, but several compelling possibilities exist. Their common thread is our species’ unusual relationship with mood and the doors it opens for unique routes into depression. A chimpanzee is capable of feeling bad, but only a human being can feel bad about feeling bad. Former tennis great Cliff Richey, in his memoir “Acing Depression,” described how he became engulfed by low mood: “One of the horrible things about depression—in addition to the foul, odorous, sick, deathly mood you’re in—is that you’re now spending so much of your time, almost all of it, just trying to fix yourself. You’re consumed by, ‘How can I fix this horrible thing?’”

Humans have a host of unique thoughts and reactions to low mood, many of which are highly cognitive. Only a human can keep a mood diary or write a book about depression. We often think of what’s uniquely human as uniquely better. Surely pride may be a reasonable emotion for the species that harnessed fire and put a man on the moon. It’s easy to see traits such as advanced language, the ability to be self-aware, and participation in a rich shared culture as unalloyed virtues. Yet when it comes to “fixing” mood, all of these special human assets can turn into liabilities, with the unintended consequence of making depression worse.

Sinking Through Thinking

A hallmark human response to low mood is to try to explain it—as we do with moods generally. We use language to construct theories about where painful feelings come from. The basic idea is, “If I understand why I feel bad, I will know how to fix it.” This impulse makes sense. It fits with a main function of low mood, which is to help draw attention to threats and obstacles in unfavorable environments. In a low mood, behavior pauses and the environment is analyzed more carefully.

However, exactly what “analyze more carefully” means depends on which species is doing the analyzing. The schnauzer, Ollie, just separated from his sister, may sit at the window for hours looking for signs of her return. Visual search is the sum total of his environmental analysis. When a human pines for a loved one, say a mother missing her son away at summer camp, the analytical field is far wider. Our outsized language capability draws in thoughts linked to the situation: “That head counselor seemed awfully young.”; “Did I remember to pack sunscreen?”; “I wonder why we haven’t gotten a postcard?” These thoughts may then trigger further mental images—a flash of Tommy drowning, the funeral—as well as feelings—a pang of guilt for ever letting him go to Camp Meadowlark in the first place.

Such reflections on mood have a purpose beyond self-flagellation. The mood system is practical and most interested in what to do next, in finding the action that will enhance fitness. What people brood about is not random but tracks key evolutionary themes (finding a mate, staying alive, achieving status, defending kith and kin, etc.). Mothers and fathers worry about their children at summer camp because mistakes in child rearing are evolutionarily costly. A mother who figures out that she’s dwelling on a failure to pack sunscreen can send a remedial Coppertone care package, and, the next time Tommy is sent away, he’s more likely to be fully provisioned. Even the most backward-looking counterfactual thinking (coulda, shoulda, woulda) has a forward-looking element: understanding why bad things happened helps us prevent their recurrence.