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Does Depression Serve a Useful Purpose?

Evidence suggests depression can be a helpful teacher.

Key points

  • The roots of depression often start not in neurotransmitters but in life circumstances.
  • Several lines of evidence suggest that depression can be a powerful teacher.
  • Understanding the origins of a depression can help to address it more effectively.
Fizken/Adobe Stock
Fizken/Adobe Stock

I’ve never enjoyed bouts of depression. If you’ve been depressed, you know how painful it can be. It’s probably hard to imagine any good coming from the low mood and motivation, feelings of worthlessness, and other punishing symptoms.

Medicalizing low bouts of mood as "pathological" suggests that depression is only a problem, like influenza. From this perspective, depression is no more meaningful than the flu. The only right response is to treat the symptoms, often with medication.

But we can step back from equating depression with a mental health disorder and ask an intriguing question: What might we learn from depression?

This is not to say that every depressive episode has existential relevance or even a psychological or behavioral origin. Some depression is the direct result of an illness, a medication, or an unknown physiological cause. But when you’re overtaken by depression, it may be worth asking what it could be pointing to. Several lines of evidence suggest that being depressed could serve a purpose.

Life Is Out of Balance

You need a mix of work and play to feel your best. All work and no play leads to high stress and chronic seriousness; all play and no work leaves you adrift and starved for a sense of purpose.

Many studies have shown that doing enjoyable and important activities can be a powerful antidote to depression—at least as effective as antidepressant medication on average, and often more protective against future depression. These findings underscore that depression at times is a signal that you need more rewarding things in your life and the right balance of rewards.

Try this: Take stock of whether your days are filled with enough sources of enjoyment and accomplishment. If either is lacking, aim to add one rewarding activity over the coming week.

Something Isn’t Working

Evolutionary psychologists propose that depression may have been selected and shaped by evolutionary forces because it offered a specific adaptive function; examples of proposed functions include “conserving energy, disengaging from unobtainable goals, signaling submission, soliciting resources, and promoting analytical thinking.” In the evolutionary framework, depression is often a sign not that something is broken but that an adaption is working to serve its evolved function, as when pain indicates an intact nociceptive system.

You can push yourself to tolerate things that aren’t right for you—a miserable job, a soul-sucking relationship, a toxic cult—until you can’t. Depression may arise as an unmistakable sign that something is wrong. Addressing the symptoms while ignoring their source would be at best a temporary fix, like taking an aspirin for a headache caused by dehydration.

Even though it feels bad at the time, depression can serve a vital protective function, like a guardrail that stops your car from plunging over a cliff. Running into emotional pain can compel you to change course when you’re going the wrong way.

Try this: Notice if anything seems to be sucking the life out of you today, such as certain people or activities. Ask yourself whether something in that area might need to change.

A Complex Social Issue Needs Your Attention

Others have noted that depression often arises in response to complex social problems that require the withdrawal of energy as well as time for introspection. According to the Analytical Rumination Hypothesis, social problems could have serious—and even deadly—consequences for our evolutionary ancestors. Survival required being part of a group, and being excluded from the group could lead to starvation or being preyed upon.

Psychologist Steve Hollon suggests that depression might serve to direct energy to the brain “to keep you in your head and make you ruminate about a complex social problem” in order to solve it. This process of rumination is a familiar one for most people who have been depressed. According to Hollon, psychotherapy can be helpful by enabling a person to think more carefully and systematically about the problem they’re facing so they can resolve it, and thereby recover from depression.

Try this: Ask yourself whether there is a complex problem you’re dealing with that requires careful consideration. Seek out someone you trust (such as a loved one or therapist) to help you think it through.

More of Life Wants to Be Lived Through You

Depression can also be a signal that life has more for you. Perhaps your low mood is a sign of your deep loneliness or your profound boredom. For example, many adults look up in midlife and realize to their surprise that they are basically friendless; they’ve been so busy being adults that their relationships dropped away one by one. Others put their lifelong dream on hold, even as the universe tries in a thousand ways to tell them it’s their destiny.

Author and therapist James Hollis maintains that depression—especially in midlife—is often a call from the deepest parts of ourselves (what he calls the soul) to make important changes in how we’re living. “The task,” he writes in Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, “is to ask what the psyche wants, not what the parents want, … not what the culture wants, not what the ego wants. The summons is to respond from the depths of one’s being and risk giving the soul what it always wants—a larger journey.”

According to Hollis, the feeling of death that depression brings can be equally a sign of something new, perhaps akin to birth pains. “So often we experience depression as a dark herald with a grim countenance that tells us something is dying, has reached its end, is played out,” he writes, “and yet it really is announcing something new, something larger, something developmental that wishes greater play in our life.”

Try this: Make a habit of listening for where life is calling you (Gillihan, 2022). Spend a few moments each day sitting quietly and allowing the breath to be gentle. Tune your awareness to the inner parts of yourself that get drowned out by busyness and noise.

Only you can decide what your depression means. Maybe it’s the result of too much or too little activity in certain brain areas or neurotransmitter systems. Or perhaps it’s a sign that you need more (or less) of something in your life, or it came to teach you something important.

Whatever the case, it can be worthwhile to look more deeply within when you experience depression. Regardless of the source or meaning of your symptoms, you can be well served by listening closely for what is happening in your body, mind, and soul.


Andrews, P. W., & Thomson, J. A., Jr. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116, 620–654.

Durisko, Z., Mulsant, B. H., & Andrews, P. W. (2015). An adaptationist perspective on the etiology of depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 172, 315–323.

Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Simple Path to Healing, Hope, and Peace. HarperOne.

Moreno-Agostino, D., Wu, Y-T., Daskalopoulou, C., Hasan, M. T., Huisman, M., & Prina, M. (2021). Global trends in the prevalence and incidence of depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 281, 235–243.

Stein, A. T., Carl, E., Cuijpers, P., Karyotaki, E., & Smits, J. A. (2021). Looking beyond depression: A meta-analysis of the effect of behavioral activation on depression, anxiety, and activation. Psychological Medicine, 51, 1491–1504.

Hollis, J. (2005). Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up. Penguin.

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