Are you feeling depressed? Unable to escape the loop of negative thoughts? Here’s new research on not just recovering from depression, but thriving after emotional difficulties.
Written by: Todd B. Kashdan
The World Health Organization considers depression to be a monumental problem, specifically the leading cause of disability worldwide. That’s ahead of widely publicized contenders, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Reading the news today, you might conclude that depression leads inevitably to suicides, school shootings, or altercations with the police.
Can this darkest of human frailties ever point the way to something better?
Our personal and professional experiences say yes.
One of us (Rottenberg, running The Mood and Emotion Lab) saw this 25 years ago from the barrel of a depression. After a chronic struggle, he was ready to throw in the towel. He dropped out of graduate school and, after trying every medication advertised on television, was hospitalized. It seemed like his life was over. Extinguished. Done for.
After this shattering experience, somehow, someway, he pulled it together. He got married. Had a child. Became a psychologist. Focused on the study of depression. Got tenure. Somehow, someway, a grotesque experience led to an unexpected second act: After depression, little things didn’t rattle him, and life had a purpose, maybe even more than before.
One of us (Kashdan, running The Well-Being Lab) saw this as a new clinical science trainee, helping clients grapple with crippling social fear. Clients saw themselves as a bundle of massive, irreconcilable flaws. They feared being seen, feared meeting people, feared disclosure, even feared standing with others in an elevator. They were sure that social exposure meant scrutiny, then rejection. Tiny actions in treatment slowly dissolved these beliefs.
Week one, say hello to someone. Week two, ask someone about their midnight guilty pleasure. Week three, go out with people and play volleyball. But the weirdest thing happened months after treatment ended. Baby steps somehow became giant leaps. Patients now spoke of positive self-regard, intimacy and laughter, and ambitious accomplishments. The goal of therapy was to help clients lose their crippling fear. Something else happened. They were thriving. How?
Struck by these observations, we joined forces to find out what is known about human rebirth after the calamity of depression. What explains it? How often does it happen?
Instead, consensus opinion in psychology, psychiatry, and public health go something like this:
“Depression is a chronic and recurrent condition, with each experienced depressive episode increasing the risk of future episodes,” as Dr. David Solomon and colleagues from the National Institute of Mental Health put in 2000.
Or, as Saba Moussavi and colleagues from the World Health Organization wrote in the Lancet, “Without treatment, depression has the tendency to assume a chronic course, be recurrent, and over time to be associated with increasing disability.”
We summed up the malaise of world-leading thinkers: If there is one piece of bankable expert consensus, it is that depression is a recurrent and chronic condition that is difficult to contain, even when treated.
In other words, the scientific literature clearly states that if you’ve had depression once, it will probably strike you down again and lay waste to your good years (ironically, disseminating this idea might exacerbate people’s depression). You’ll be impaired at work, your relationships will suffer, and your happiness and sense of meaning in life will be obstructed.
Sadly, depression can be a lifelong problem.
But as we dug more deeply into the corpus of epidemiological studies, we also saw signs of better outcomes. For example, in rare longitudinal studies that modeled the whole population, 40 to 60 percent of people who had depression once never experienced a recurrence, even after being questioned years and even decades later. Thriving, or well-being, was not measured directly in these studies, but it stands to reason that many of these people who had depression once, and shook it over the long term, were living better than the average human being without depression, experiencing frequent positive emotions, good relationships, autonomy in thought and action, and meaningful goals.