One of the most common symptoms of depression is “anhedonia,” the lack of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities. If you’ve ever been depressed you probably recognize the experience of not looking forward to anything, even activities you used to enjoy. Even basic pleasures like food and sex may have lost their allure.
Multiple research studies have supported the “positive mood attenuation hypothesis”: When we’re depressed, positive things do less to lift our spirits. However, one of the most well-supported cognitive behavioral treatments for depression called “behavioral activation” relies on the mood-lifting effects of meaningful and enjoyable activities. How does this treatment work if the positive mood attenuation hypothesis is correct?
A new research study revisited this hypothesis in a sample of young adults. The authors pointed out that most of the studies showing positive mood attenuation in depression were done in the lab and used positive stimuli that are of questionable relevance to real life: “viewing positive images, … happy facial expressions, amusing videos, or receiving small monetary rewards.”
The good thing about a study done in the lab is it’s easy to control, and the researchers have a relatively clear idea of what is influencing the participants. The downside is that the design may not be a good model for real life. Indeed, when we’re feeling low we probably aren’t thinking, “You know what would really cheer me up? Finding a dollar. Or maybe watching another funny Youtube video.” The authors note that “real-life experiences are more personally relevant, more interactive, more wholly immersive, and more likely to have a tangible impact on the person’s future experiences.” In other words, they probably matter a lot more.
This new study examined the effects of real-life events on mood, depending on a person’s level of depression symptoms. Would individuals with high levels of depression feel better when good things happened? Participants reported their daily depressive symptoms and their “daily uplifts” (e.g., enjoying time with friends, exercising) through an online portal, which allowed for analysis of how mood and daily events were related. These analyses showed:
- People with higher levels of depression got a significant boost in their moods from positive events. In contrast with results from laboratory studies, people who started out more depressed got a bigger boost when good things happened than did people with little or no depression. Part of the effect could be driven by the fact that people who started out more depressed have more room for improvement in their mood.
- Interpersonal events had the greatest impact on mood. As the researchers had hypothesized, “mood-brightening effects” were “particularly pronounced when the daily uplifting events were interpersonal in nature.” In other words, having good interactions with other people had the biggest effect on mood among people with a lot of depression symptoms.
- Depression was linked with expecting fewer positive events. Individuals with greater depression symptoms were less optimistic about good things happening the next day, and accordingly less hopeful of feeling happy. Not surprisingly, this effect was most pronounced among those with severe depression.
- Looking forward to positive events the next day lifted mood among people who are depressed. Although people with greater depression were less likely to anticipate positive things happening, those who did anticipate good things got a significant bump in their mood. Thus people with depression benefit not only from positive life events but from looking forward to those events.
These findings have important implications for people with depression who are looking for ways to lift their mood. First, they confirm the benefit of doing more activities that bring enjoyment—and particularly of sharing positive experiences with other people.
They also underscore that depression gets in the way of being able to anticipate the mood-lifting effects of positive activities, which often leads us away from doing the very things that will help us feel better.
This tendency is exactly what behavioral activation for depression is designed to address. The structure and progressive approach of this treatment can be a real lifeline for a person who knows s/he needs to “do more,” and is struggling mightily to find the wherewithal to do so.