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Depression

When Happy Memories Make Us Sad

Positive memories can cause negative emotions in individuals with depression.

Key points

  • Individuals with a history of depression feel less happy when thinking about positive memories compared with individuals without depression.
  • Negative pondering and difficulty identifying with past selves may contribute to emotional experiences in response to positive memories.
  • Mindfulness may protect against negative pondering, self-reflection, and feelings of sadness when thinking about positive past events.

It sounds counterintuitive that thinking about happy memories might make us sad. Yet, that is exactly what people struggling with depression may experience.

Unlike people who have never experienced depression and who typically experience mood improvement when thinking about positive past events, people with depression may instead experience a worsening of mood when thinking about such events. Even people who have experienced depression in their past but are no longer suffering from acute depression may fail to experience mood improvement when thinking about positive events from their past. This means that people struggling with depression may miss out on mood boosts and positive self-affirmations in everyday life, which may be important for maintaining a positive view on life and oneself and protect against depressed mood.

But why is it that people with a history of depression do not experience the same mood benefit from positive memories as people without depression? Researchers are slowly starting to unravel the answer to this question. In a new study published in Memory, my co-authors and I shed light on four factors that may play a role in the counterintuitive emotional experiences that people with depression report in response to memories of positive past events.

1. The way positive memories come to mind matters.

In our study, people with a history of recurrent depression and individuals without a history of depression reported on both positive memories that spontaneously popped up in their mind in everyday life and positive memories that they intentionally thought about when asked to think about a positive event from their past. We found that people who had experienced depression in the past reported less-intense feelings of happiness when thinking about both spontaneous and intentional positive memories compared with people without a depression history. In addition, when positive memories came to mind spontaneously, people with past depression reported more intense feelings of sadness compared to people without depression.

These findings suggest that people who have suffered from depression in their past experience less emotional benefit from thinking about positive past events compared with people who have not experienced depression in their past. They may also find it especially challenging to emotionally process memories of positive past events when these come to mind suddenly and unexpectedly in everyday life as opposed to positive memories that they intentionally choose to think about.

2. The past self feels different from the present self.

Another factor associated with the emotional experiences of individuals with past depression was the degree to which they were able to identify with their remembered self, or the person they were when the remembered positive event occurred. People who had experienced depression in their past felt that there was a greater contrast between their present sense of self and their remembered self compared with people who had not experienced depression in their past. This was, in turn, associated with a diminished experience of happiness in response to spontaneous positive memories and more intense feelings of sadness in response to both spontaneous and intentional positive memories.

These findings suggest that when people who have suffered from depression think about positive past events, they may struggle to fully identify with their past self that these memories reflect. This experience of discrepancy between their past and present sense of self may compromise the emotional benefits of thinking about positive past events and play a role in the feelings of sadness that individuals with a depression history experience when thinking about memories of positive past events.

3. Negative pondering turns good into bad.

A third factor associated with the emotional experiences of individuals with past depression was the degree to which they engaged in negative pondering or evaluations when thinking about positive past events. People who had suffered from depression in their past reported that they engaged more in negative pondering or evaluations when thinking about positive past events, compared to people without depression. This was, in turn, associated with greater feelings of sadness in response to positive memories that came to mind spontaneously.

One way of interpreting these findings is that when people with depression unintentionally think about positive events from their past, they may start pondering about or evaluating these memories in negative ways that contribute to feelings of sadness instead of feelings of happiness.

4. Mindfulness may protect against negative pondering and reflections.

A final factor associated with the way both people with and without a history of depression felt when thinking about positive past events was the degree to which they were able to be mindful. That is, their emotional experiences were associated with their ability to be aware of their moment-to-moment inner experiences in a nonjudgmental and nonreactive way. Those who reported higher levels of mindfulness also engaged less in self-reflective evaluations and negative pondering, which, in turn, was associated with lower feelings of sadness when thinking about positive memories.

One way of interpreting this finding is that when people are able to be more mindful of their memories and thoughts, they may be less prone to automatic and negative evaluations of these memories and thoughts. That way, mindfulness may protect against some of the negative emotional processes responsible for the counterintuitive emotional effects of positive memories in individuals who have experienced depression in their past.

These findings move us one step closer to unraveling the answer to why individuals with depression may not experience the same mood benefit of thinking about positive past events as individuals without depression. With a growing focus on understanding how individuals with depression experience and respond to memories of positive past events, future studies will continue to shed light on this important question and help us understand how mindfulness and other therapeutic approaches may reduce or protect against negative emotional processes responsible for negative emotional reactions to memories of positive past events, as well as enhance more adaptive processes that can help boost mood and promote a positive view on the world and oneself.

References

Isham, A. E., Watson, L. A., & Dritschel, B. (2022). Sad reflections of happy times: Depression vulnerability and experiences of sadness and happiness upon retrieval of positive autobiographical memories. Memory. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2022.2105364

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