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What Fantasy Football Can Teach Us About Depression

Here's how a game about a game can help improve depression.

Key points

  • To properly treat depressive symptoms, a person needs to know what is causing them.
  • Creating experiments to test their hypothesis will help someone find a cause.
  • Leaning on their community can help someone apply what they find.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

On the surface, a frivolous game about football and a disorder with deadly consequences don’t have a lot in common. But beneath the surface, they are both trying to answer the same two fundamental questions. What’s more important to your success: your individual abilities or your environment? And does your past accurately predict your future? The process of how fantasy football answers those questions can help you with your depression.

For the uninitiated, I’ll explain the game of fantasy football. You and a group of friends each pick 8-10 real-life players from different NFL teams and pretend they all play for one super team that you create. Sports analysts track how well each of those players performs and award them points for things like how many touchdowns they scored or how many yards they ran in a game.

To win in fantasy football, your team has to score more points than your opponent each week, and you can change your players from week to week. But when you play this game, you have to ask yourself if a player performed well because they’re great or because their circumstances were great. Was it that player’s skills that led to success, or was it the skills of those around them?

My depressed clients ask themselves the same kinds of questions.

Do I really deserve this promotion, or is my boss just being nice?

Why didn’t I get invited to that party? Because I don’t usually spend time with that group, or is it because they hate me?

Am I alone because I live in this small town or because I’m unlovable?

Time will tell if you get that second promotion, if you get an invite to a big party, and what happens if you move. But it’s hard to answer those questions without running some experiments. Fantasy football answers those questions with experiments every year when players are traded from one team to another.

Davante Adams has proven he is an elite wide receiver, no matter what the environment is. He was traded from the Green Bay Packers to the Las Vegas Raiders, and he continued to perform at a Hall of Fame level. On the flip side, other players, like Russell Wilson, have underwhelmed after they were traded and seemed to prove that it was their environment that made them elite.

Depressed people have to run similar experiments over time to find out if they are part of the problem, if it’s their environment, or if it’s a combination of both. I’ve had clients who changed jobs, ended a toxic relationship, or moved to another city and improved their depression within months. I’ve also had clients who made similar changes and saw little to no impact on their depression because the cause of their depression was more related to their physical health or the way they interact with people.

For example, if you are a people pleaser and that’s how you make yourself feel comfortable in social situations, then it doesn’t matter if you live in Texas or Thailand; you’re going to have a hard time talking to people about your problems because you don’t want to burden them, which can lead to depression. Other experiments, like changing jobs, can provide helpful information on how to treat your depression because they illuminate if you should focus more on yourself or your environment.

Once you’ve answered the person vs. environment question, you have to address another problem present both in depression and in football. Just because something has happened once, twice, or even three times, does that mean it will continue? A player might be a disappointment for years but then become one of the best players in the league the next year. And sometimes, the best players in the league are a complete bust the season after.

When you find yourself asking questions about your future like these...

  • Will I ever be in a healthy, long-term relationship?
  • Can I ever feel less depressed?
  • Am I always going to feel overwhelmed at work?

...Try to answer them.

The fantasy football community takes thought experiments very seriously. Everything a player does on the field gets tracked, documented, and then discussed amongst a group of people with different opinions. Fantasy football players use online forums, apps, and extensive tracking tools to try to predict a player’s future and build a community around thought experiments. It’s the community that makes answering those questions easier over time.

I can ask friends if I should take Justin Herbert in the fifth round, and I’ll get different opinions. But their discussions will help me come to my own conclusions. And it’s the people I talk to that will help me feel better if I’m wrong. If I chose a player who I think is going to be a starting running back but ends up getting cut from the team, I’ll have thousands of other people who can share in my pain. The company can save you from misery.

If you’re depressed, take a page from the fantasy football playbook. When you ask yourself questions about your future, test your hypotheses, document the results, and talk about what you find with your community. People who purposely try to answer their questions about depression will become more self-aware and improve their depressive symptoms. This is part of why CBT is an effective treatment model for depression. People who talk to their community more and improve their relationships also improve their depressive symptoms. This is why interpersonal therapy (IPT), which focuses on teaching social skills and improving relationships, is just as effective as CBT for depression.

The past is not a perfect predictor of the future, and you never know if you’re the problem or if it’s your environment until you experiment. The fantasy football community has taken those two truths and made it into a game. In order to improve your depression, I hope you find a way to share the moments of unpredictability in life and make it a little more fun.


Cuijpers, P., Geraedts, A. S., van Oppen, P., Andersson, G., Markowitz, J. C., & van Straten, A. (2011). Interpersonal psychotherapy for depression: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 168(6), 581-592.

Miller, A. H., & Raison, C. L. (2016). The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target. Nature reviews immunology, 16(1), 22-34.

Reinecke, M. A., Ryan, N. E., & DuBois, D. L. (1998). Cognitive-behavioral therapy of depression and depressive symptoms during adolescence: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 37(1), 26-34.

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