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Where Did Depression Come From?

Evolutionary psychology describes how an ancestral environment, different from the one we face today, shaped the structure and function of our brains. An appreciation of the evolutionary perspective on depression can help those who are acutely suffering.

One of the liveliest discussions today concerns the influence of our evolutionary past on our present-day biology and behavior. An appreciation of the evolutionary perspective on depression can help those who are acutely suffering.

Evolutionary psychology describes how an ancestral environment different from the one we face today shaped the structure and function of our brains. As a result, we have internalized aspects of our ancestral environment that may be ill suited to life today.

What do we make of this mismatch? There is debate about the nature of depression. Is it, as conventional medicine thinks, purely an illness? Or, as evolutionary psychology sees it, is it an evolved mechanism of distress telling us to hibernate, escape or change something? In all likelihood, it is both. It is a complex condition.

The malignant sadness of depression appears to have a purpose. It is a signal that our coping system is overwhelmed and that we need time out. Of course, taking time out today is much different from when we lived in small groups of 50 people, but then as now we can use the sadness of depression to elicit comfort from those around us and reaffirm close ties. And we can reenergize ourselves by identifying false and unworkable beliefs we hold about ourselves.

Here are some action strategies that can help.

  • Learn to distinguish emotions from mood. Emotions are fleeting feelings. Mood is a more persistent background state.

    People who win the lottery certainly experience immediate joy. But there is no change in their level of overall happiness.

  • Focus on doing things that affect mood. Eating ice cream feels good only for a moment. Gambling is a way many people seek emotional distraction, but at best it gives a transient high. And that's if you win.

    Most of us seek ephemeral pursuits to change fleeting feelings. But we also need to attend to deeper mood states. The changes we seek at that level come from traditional standbys—satisfying work and relationships.

  • Cultivate the resources that eventually impact mood. Deep-seated satisfaction comes not just from having friends, for example,but from feeling confident that you can nurture and deepen intimate relationships.
  • If you are depressed that you are not in a relationship, learn to initiate contact with new people who seem interesting. You won'tmeet people if you drag yourself home after work each day and plant yourself in front of the television. Get out and about. Make yourself stay out for an hour walking around, exploring your environment.
  • Action in and of itself has a mild antidepressant effect. It has cognitive effects in refuting some of your negative beliefs about yourself. And it is energizing.
  • To initiate contact with someone, you need to go near them. Work against passivity and your anxiety about proximity.
  • Say something. Anything. If you're on a bus or subway, push yourself to sit next to someone who looks interesting and say something: "Do you think this bus will ever get to its destination before sunrise?"Of course you run the risk of rejection. Even here an evolutionary perspective is helpful. When our ancestors lived in small bands, rejection was painful because there were dire repercussions. Rejection by even one person would be communicated to the whole group. Your status was diminished, your position threatened. Today the repercussions are negligible—although we still react emotionally to rejection as if our existence depended on it.
  • Venting can be helpful. Some people feel better by talking. Sharing experience and having a witness to your life can change mood. It relates to our desire to manage our status, the impression others have of us. Venting feels good at the level of both emotion and of mood.

    Venting definitely helps some people to feel better. But the goal is also to get better.

  • Identify and uproot irrational beliefs that lead you to place unrealistic demands on yourself. Examine self-talk for beliefs that get you depressed: "I must appear intelligent at all times or I won't succeed." "I'm not good enough to date her."

    Combat the self-talk by which we place unreasonable demands on circumstances: "I need a guarantee of interest before I contact him." "This task should be easier." "Life should be fair."

  • Learn to look at your life empirically. If an experience of social contact doesn't work, try something else or move on. Recognize that often it is just a lack of fit between people.
  • Shift your thinking from "What's wrong with me?" to the far more useful "What's wrong with what I did?" Depressed people tend to escalate what they believe is wrong with one interaction into an entire philosophy about what is inherently wrong with them.
  • Engage in good, constructive work. Long-range creative projects that absorb you have a highly positive impact on mood. Depression brings a diffuse disruption of ability to function. It decreases ability to focus. Many people, especially men, throw themselves into busy work. But it is palliative and helps only momentarily. It doesn't make you more resilient. Creative projects, on the other hand, fortify you now and in the future.