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The Emotional Ups and Downs in the Lives of the Depressed

New research provides insights into the everyday emotions of the depressed.

When you think about major depressive disorder, you undoubtedly focus on negative emotions as its defining feature. On a daily basis, then, you would expect that people who have this diagnosis are unable to experience positive emotions such as joy and happiness. When things go wrong in their daily lives, their mood should drop even lower. Even if they’re given a reason to rejoice, furthermore, they should be resistant to a bump up in their feelings of well-being.

Given this understanding of depression, it might, therefore, surprise you to learn that the mood patterns of people who fit this diagnosis may not remain consistently on the bottom of the scale. According to the University of Münster’s Janna Nelson and colleagues (2020), it’s necessary to look not just at the negative emotions involved in depression, but the pattern of changes between positive and negative moods that these individuals experience. The German researchers tested the idea that at the core of major depression may be not a lack of positive affect in their lives, but an inability to recover from an event that triggers sadness.

As Nelson et al. note, “Above and beyond the average mood state, fluctuations of feelings over time appear to be crucial for psychological health” (p. 179). In other words, you shouldn’t expect to be happy 100 percent of the time. In depression, the issue seems to be, the authors argue, that individuals experience what they call “emotional inertia,” or a resistance to changes in emotion. People whose sad mood lingers despite changes in objective circumstances, such as being treated nicely by someone else, will spend their time ruminating over the less pleasant events that might have preceded that potential mood boost. Although emotional inertia could apply to the lingering of happiness, previous research cited by the authors suggests that this form of emotional consistency isn’t particularly maladaptive. Indeed, the theory of emotional context insensitivity (ECI) suggests that people with depression have blunted emotional reactions to both good and bad experiences, a view supported by lab studies comparing depressed individuals with healthy controls.

In real life, in contrast to the lab, ECI might not apply to people with depression. When followed through daily mood monitors, the depressed may be able to respond to pleasant experiences with positive affect to the same extent as do the non-depressed. In one previous study, the depressed showed “mood brightening,” in which their happiness did increase after a positive event. Might people with depression feel good, then, as they go about their daily activities when the situation calls for it?

To test this possibility, Nelson and his colleagues investigated emotional dynamics, or the rise and fall of positive and negative affective states, using a method known as ecological momentary assessment (EMA) that “pings” people throughout the day with a beep signal to answer mood-related questions on a smartphone. A sample of 40 individuals with depression (63 percent female, average age 35 years) was compared to a healthy control group of similar composition with the exception of employment status. Those in the depressed group were more likely to be on medical leave, as may be expected.

Occurring over a 4-day period with prompts from 30 to 90 minutes apart, the EMA questions asked participants to indicate their current emotional state (e.g. sadness, fear, anger vs. joy, even temper, satisfaction). The event questions asked participants to describe the most recent event that had occurred prior to the EMA as well as their current activity, right before the prompt. To get a sense of how the EMA works, ask yourself these very questions right now. What is your emotional state? Are you feeling happy, anxious, or none of the above? What were you just doing and what are you doing now? As you can see, these questions are very different than those in a standard self-report questionnaire in which you might be asked to rate your emotions and experiences over the past 7 days, as is the case in many studies of mood and well-being.

The findings revealed that, consistent with the emotional inertia hypothesis, those in the depressed group had higher levels of negative and lower levels of positive affect that carried over from one event to the next. The depressed did show variations in their negative affect scores, but these changes were slow and not necessarily immediately responsive to the events assessed in the EMA’s.

The lives of those with depression were not restricted to negative emotions, though. They showed similar levels of variability in their positive moods over time as did healthy controls, even though the overall positive mood ratings were lower in the depressed group. Describing this result, the authors noted that, “disturbances in positive affectivity in depression are best described by its reduced frequency and/or intensity” (p. 187).

Although their overall positive affect was lower, then, people with depression could experience some moments of happiness. Indeed, consistent with the mood-brightening effect, there were no signs of ECI in the depressed group when it came to pleasant events. Unfortunately, those in the depressed group reported fewer positive events and current activities, perhaps due to the negative bias that can color the interpretation of experiences in depression. However, the depressed individuals at least were responsive to their context when something good actually happened to them.

The finding that mood brightening is possible in the depressed supports one of the basic principles of behavioral therapy for depression that involves weekly “homework” assignments of engaging in rewarding and pleasant activities. Instead of waiting for those pleasant activities to come along, then, people with depression can benefit from proactively seeking out positive experiences. Rather than focus only on reducing negative moods, such an approach builds on the natural tendency of people with this disorder to show some enjoyment on a daily basis. Psychology may be underselling this positive mood intervention when the focus is only on reducing the negative affect associated with depression.

Another important takeaway from this study is that people’s everyday functioning may not be accurately captured in the lab. Whatever findings come from experimental studies require replication in naturalistic settings. Furthermore, as noted earlier, questionnaires that ask participants to rate their previous emotions over a prolonged period of time may fail to capture both the highs and lows that actually occur in people’s lives.

To sum up, depression isn’t all about negative emotions. People with this disorder do experience uplifts during the course of their daily activities. If you’re a person who tends to focus on the negative in your life, taking advantage of the mood-brightening effect over the course of your day may be one step toward finding greater long-term fulfillment.

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Nelson, J., Klumparendt, A., Doebler, P., & Ehring, T. (2020). Everyday emotional dynamics in major depression. Emotion, 20(2), 179–191. doi:10.1037/emo0000541.supp (Supplemental).

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