The upside to feeling down


There’s no need to look on the bright side of life anymore – a less optimistic approach is of more benefit, according to recent research, writes CHARLIE TAYLOR

WE MAY do our best to avoid being upset or angry, but there’s growing evidence to suggest that negative thinking serves a valuable purpose in our lives and can even be of benefit to us.

Recently-published research from the US and Australia suggests that heeding the call to “be happy, think positive and stop worrying” is, in evolutionary terms at least, somewhat misplaced. In fact, it seems that a less optimistic view of the world and our place in it might be called for.

According to the results of a series of experiments undertaken by Prof Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales, Australia, people who are in a bad mood are less gullible, are better at decision-making and provide more accurate eyewitness accounts of events than those who are feeling cheerful.

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, co-operation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world,” Forgas writes in the latest issue of Australian Science Journal.

“A sad person can cope with more demanding situations than a happy one because of the way the brain ‘promotes information processing strategies’,” he adds.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Forgas says even he is surprised at the results of the research.

“Intuitively, one doesn’t expect hedonistically negative experiences – such as bad mood – to have a beneficial effect.

“However, the findings do make sense in terms of evolutionary principles – even unpleasant states such as fear or disgust exist for a purpose, so why should bad mood not have adaptive consequences?” he asks.

Meanwhile, a separate study undertaken by US psychiatrist James Anderson Thomson Jnr of the University of Virginia and Phd fellow Paul Andrews of Virginia Commonwealth University and published in the latest issue of Psychological Review, goes one step further than Forgas by going all out and suggesting an evolutionary basis for depression.

The researchers’ paper, The Bright Side of Being Blue: Depression as an Evolved Adaptation for Analyzing Complex Social Problems, argues that depression did not emerge through chance but rather that it occurs in all species, and does so because it is of enormous assistance to us.

The theory put forward by Thomson and Andrews is that depression is an adaptive emotional response to complex problems and that it came about because it can help us with problem solving.

“Perhaps more so than other painful emotions, people in the evolutionary past must have had to learn how to endure extended periods of depression. A complex problem, for instance, resists simple solution, and depressive pain persists despite attempts to quickly solve it,” say the authors.

“The extended nature of depressive pain is useful. Without it, people would not be motivated to engage in the extended effort required to solve complex problems,” they add.

Given that more than 400,000 Irish people experience depression and that as many as one in three of us will be affected by it at some point in our lives, the latest research makes fascinating reading.

Moreover, according to the researchers, it could also lead to a radical rethink of the way we address the issue.

“In my opinion we need to reconsider depression’s role. If it is seen automatically as a disorder, then we are not only making a mistake in our medical science, but possibly depriving the individual of a more effective means of responding to the depression,” says Thompson.

“ We would also spare the sufferer whatever additional damage is done to self-esteem by thinking they are disordered. The old view hardly counters the problem of stigmatising emotional problems,” he says.

Nonetheless, he adds that it is not time to put away the Prozac just yet.

“Just as a fever can go too far and you need aspirin to lower it and make the patient more comfortable, you can sometimes ease the depression and make it easier to find solutions.

“But, one must guard against blunting the capacity to solve problems,” he says.

“The current therapeutic emphasis on antidepressant medications taps into the evolved desire to find quick fixes for pain. But learning how to endure and utilise emotional pain may be part of the evolutionary heritage of depression, which may explain venerable philosophical traditions that view emotional pain as the impetus for growth and insight into oneself and the problems of life,” Thompson says.

While eager to draw a distinction between clinical depression and the general kind of low feeling that every individual can experience on occasion, both research projects give further evidence to the theory that there is an upside to feeling down and that a more realistic approach to living might be sensible.

“The incessant search for happiness and pleasant hedonistic experiences is probably overdone. Human beings have evolved to exist in an ever-changing affective environment, and maybe we need to accept that experiences of sadness and bad mood are part of human condition, the way we adaptively respond to events around us, and thus should be accepted as such,” adds Forgas.

Julie K Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and author of the best-selling book, The Power of Negative Thinking, agrees.

“I firmly believe that negative thinking is useful – I’d say essential – for survival of a species that relies so much on planning and preparation to adapt across a wide variety of environments.

“If you are unable to anticipate danger or risk, you are not going to be very good at avoiding it,” she says.

“Negative thinking is a more highly evolved correlate of negative emotions, which are important because they warn us of danger and give us feedback that something is going wrong.

“The ability to think about negative possible outcomes, and to gather information in response to negative emotions, is crucial to our ability to learn by mental simulation instead of by sheer trial and error,” she concludes.