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 the point.

The problem may be more basic. It may instead be that depressed people are choosing the wrong emotion regulation goal to begin with. That is, depressed people may be effective enough in regulating their emotions, but they may be choosing to regulate in a direction that reinforces their negative mood. This raises the possibility that depressed people are actually more motivated to experience unpleasant emotions like sadness, as strange as this sounds.

Tamir and her colleagues tested this provocative idea is a few experiments. In one, for example, they asked depressed and healthy subjects to choose between looking at sad pictures or amusing ones (or neutral ones). So all the subjects were using the same stimuli selection strategy, but the depressed subjects still chose significantly more of the sad images—even though they clearly had the option of avoiding them. In a second similar study, subjects chose music, and again depressed subjects chose to listen to sad tunes more often than healthy controls did, even when upbeat music was available. Finally, even when depressed subjects were explicitly trained to reappraise situations in more positive ways, they chose not to use the strategy as often as healthy controls.

So across studies, as reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, depressed subjects clearly chose to engage with stimuli that caused them moderate to intense sadness. The findings show that depressed individuals, compared to healthy controls, regulate their emotions in a manner that is likely to maintain sadness. But they did not choose to decrease happiness. They chose more happy images than sad images, and what’s more, they said they preferred happiness to sadness.

So why, if they prefer happiness, would they deliberately choose regulatory goals that undermine that happiness? One possibility, the scientists say, is that depressed people use emotion regulation to verify their emotional selves. In other words, sadness is more familiar to depressed people, so they are motivated to experience sadness as a way of reaffirming who they are. Depression is also closely tied to low self-esteem, and it may be that depressed people believe that they deserve to feel bad.

My depressed friend wanted relief from his misery, sometimes desperately. He struggled, yet ironically, he often acted in ways that maintained—rather than alleviated—his misery. Apparently he’s not alone in this sad choice.

Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.

Comments

‘–to verify…’

More specifically, as depression may begin at a time when we have not developed our cognitive selves in any material way, and, added to this is the survival impulse which instructs that we, ourselves, must solve this perplexing, even mysterious personal drama, there abides in us an essential inclination to *verify*–in what is likely to be a limited way–as much of the characteristics of this, our innate ‘enemy.’

That is–and, at least initially–we may not have the wherewithal to address the depression in the most effective way, e.g., to analyse accurately, disencumber ourselves from immediate issues that usually arise in order to address the ‘main event,’ get out of harm’s way, etc., so that, invariably, we repeat the very first inclination–verifying–so as to, at the very least, not lose ‘contact’ with the upset within.

This is akin to an inarticulate speaker attempting some semblance of good communication, but lacking those skills, s/he dwells on salient terms, pausing to repeat with added vocal stress on just the one word or phrase, sometimes several times in a row.

The initial trauma served to inculcate the earliest ‘weapons,’ and this early self-training abides…an emotional heuristic that becomes a well-worn rut: verify what is happening, confirm it, label it, know the enemy, etc.

Unfortunately, the ‘know-the-enemy’ tactic, though probably initially consoling for the hurting subject, turns out to be a less than adequate long-term answer to the issue at hand

The way out, it would seem, is to consider what it means to be a complete Self. The early depression trauma has likely stunted any holistic development of a fully human Self, so that s/he must now realize that addressing the depression via verification/confirmation is the merest first reaction, and not a programme for Being, let alone a design for living out one’s life potential, which fully-functioning resourceful Self will then displace the vulnerable, nascent, impoverished Self which yet abides…

Lana: Love and Truth are precious, earnestly seek them. There is an over-soul. There is no death. Eternity lies before us, yet we are enshrouded with hurt. Why do we hurt? Seek.

I’ve never commented anyone before, but I decided to reply to you bc it’s short and sweet…. I happen to believe people choose to hurt nc they are not educated on that subject. I used to choose hurt from my mother all my life, I hated myself for it, but then when I was able to sit still long enough to focus on getting educated about different personalities and why they do The things that they do, my hurt and my hatred and bitterness, slowly began to fade. But when she died all of that poison controlling my life , went in the grave with her. And now I understand . And I finally am able to forgive her and become who I really am with all my personality and talents I never knew I had. Fuck I feel amazing. And I have my mother to thank for it..

I said this was short and sweet didn’t I?

I’m happy for you.. Same is the case with me. I just want everyone to know that abusive parents aren’t only the ones who drink or physically abuse you.. Hurting someone emotionally, never appreciating them, shattering their kid’s self esteem by demotivating words. That’s what abusive is, for me. I can’t think of her dying but I guess that’ll be my only way out..

So I listen to Pink Floyd and read Sartre, and don’t take Zoloft because I think depression is normal.
This is nothing new although unusual in society flooded with antidepressant taking people.
Question is : Why do they want to be happy?
(Hapiness is gone once you realize your mortality.)

Haha! This is the awesome truth Lana!!

Could this possibly mean that we are not raising children well enough by not giving them the emotional regularity skills they need to be happy? Are we not teaching them what happiness is? And why would a person reinforce those negative feels if they have the emotional regulatory skills they need to be happy. How would one go about changing their focus? I seem to just be filled with questions. I think depression is only normal if its a temporary feeling of depression that can be self regulated, thus allowing a person to feel more then just depression all the time.

One of the reasons that I choose to be low is as a sort of self preservation response. Like when some flowers are threatened, their petals will close for a time. For me, when I’m impacted by a situation where my thoughts have become low on myself, I’ll stay in the low place for a while, a few hours. This is my safeguard against having to move from a good to a low place again when threatened. As my petals reopen, I feel humble. I cannot be hurt because I am no longer worried about myself, but now empathetic toward others’ feelings.

Well, so what would be a good way to fix these choices? I mean, what i could do, for example? I feel i’m like choosing to stay depressed, i can’t get out, i still keep being angry and sad, i don’t know what happiness feels like…

Well put article. It would be better if solutions were included too . Like the guy up there is saying, what to do next? Might be obvious to exercise choosing happy regulating emotion but still i feel i need a “how to”. Just my thoughts. sorry for my English.

Few possibilities: “the evil I know is better than the evil I do not know”. Thusly a way to avoid being anxious or fearful.
Another possibility is that they have hormone imbalances and the more subdued stimuli offers a weakened adrenal/thyroid etc. system more protection.
The more depressing stimuli is already in a state which renders no further possibility where a positive stimuli has the possibility of going in many mental directions. This could tax a fragile hormonal system. Too much expectation. Better to live life in a “flat” manner as a way of protection.

“Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey. But, sorrow is at least an arriving.”

Alan Paton

I find myself in this trap, right now.

Somehow, when you get depressed, and everything begins to look ugly and feel bad, it becomes more important to affirm the truth of this feeling than to “be happy.”

Perhaps there was a component of disillusionment that also takes place when depression moves in, accounting for the shift in world view.

Deep down, I can’t help but wonder whether people generally would rather be right than be happy.

So just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you’re depressed, it’s your own fault. You can choose (evidently) to not be. Get out of your head. Stop moping. Fix yourself.

I say that to myself every day. E-v-e-r-y day. And I pray that one day soon I won’t wake up so I won’t have to say it again.

Why would you say that to yourself? That’s completely untrue and is so incredibly inaccurate of depressed people…

There is an entrance to depression, an event or occurance, that tells your Self to feel depressed. Therefore, please know that there is an equally strong opposing potential. That is the simple yet very effective strategy (perhaps it is a coping skill?) I have learned. Choose to change your mind. Think outside of the box (of depression) into which you have somehow chosen to place yourself. You may never be able to fix other people, but you can willfully and beautifully choose to fix yourself. Nobody else can. Choose to be the best and do the best that you can. If somebody else has a problem with you, it’s their choice.

Neaely all the people thag ive known said that being sad is a choice but why would sadness not be a choice and happiness be one…..feeling heppy and sad are both emotions that you can control…you choose to remain sad..with all my love hoping that one day youll be fine.

Emotions are NOT controllable. Happiness is not a choice and neither is sadness. Emotions happen because that’s our perceptions at work. You obviously have never been depressed, why are you here?

Okay, FIRST OF ALL Sadness is not a CHOICE I don’t choose to be sad all the time, OKAY! it’s just how I relate to things sad pictures,”sad music”, it is how I relate to things how I feel and how the song is represented to me (the actual meaning of the song) which I try to figure out so I can actually understand the person behind the voice’s feelings and what they’ve been through, again it’s how I relate and sadness just comes to me I don’t choose it and triggers that make it worse, it just happens

Wonderful, amazing. To the point. I guess what’ve been described in here is so deep and make sence. I reached to this article when searching the subject “should we go out of sadness”. The answer is clear. Now I need help. How to conquer this inclination to wanting/ choosing sadness!!!

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