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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thursday's Psychology Trivia Answer: Can Faking Happiness Help Fight Depression?

Thought for the Day: It's Thursday & time for an answer to Tuesday's Psychology Trivia Question: Can pretending you are happy help fight depression? When I wrote the trivia question, I told the story of how I responded to someone on HealthTap’s question about whether his depression & monotone voice on the phone might be hurting his family business. My answer to him included the suggestion that he practice an upbeat phone voice for work. I also told him that it might help him fight the depression. My advice was prompted from various positive psychology studies that have found that a positive attitude can help reduce depression. However, I also knew that the solution to depression is far more complex than smiling more.

    I also wanted to hear from my readers, since I knew you would have thoughts & experiences that might help others dealing with similar issues. I am excited to share some of the responses that people shared here & on other social media sites in response to this non-trivial “trivia” question.

     Bill Brayman’s, a connection of mine on G+, first wrote: "Oh for sure, putting oneself on a program of personal & social positivity will result in less depression & more joy. Lot's of evidence in the positive psychology movement to support this. Certainly deep rooted depression is very tough to struggle against, but I'm certain anyone can make great improvements following a positive program." From the positive psychology world’s & books like Happy for No Reason’s
perspective simplistic prescriptions could turn one’s life around.
       Malika Bourne, one of the followers of this blog, raised some serious questions about pretending to be happy. She shared a story about a client she worked with as a nurse. Her client “was very depressed at home & made life miserable for his family.” She escorted him to the doctor every week where he told jokes & acted upbeat. The doctor, a resident, bought into his "happy-go -lucky" act. After months of sitting quietly at the appointments, Malika finally felt compelled to share her observations. The client said, "Well, you know you have to make other people have a good day." In reality, he was in denial that he had a problem. (His depression was related to a head injury.) The doctor then realized that the man “needed more help than what he was getting."

      Plucky Parenting on  G+  comment concurs with Malika’s,  she wrote that "a smile can certainly assist in helping you feel better.  If the underlying problem is not addressed though the depression will continue & no amount of smiling will fix what is truly wrong!"

     One of my connections on LinkedIn, Cesar Vieira, raised questions about depression from the physiological perspective. If depression is a biologically based illness,  like diabetes, which many professionals believe, his view that pretending will not reduce depression may be accurate. He wrote, “in a way I actually think that would lead to split personalities. Possibly also result in deeper depression due to the build up of unhappiness during pretense periods. At the end of the day, pretending does not alter the mechanisms activated in the body when unhappy, it could happen but I find it unlikely.”
       My G+ friend Bill Brayman added another perspective yesterday, after he read an article called Depression's Evolutionary Roots,  in The Scientific American. The article’s authors, , suggest that "depression is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages." They propose that "depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving." The goal of many types of therapy is to encourage & examine depressive thoughts instead of trying to stop them (as long as the person is safe). In addition, many therapists focus on & try to help people solve the problems that have triggered their depression in the first place. This would be similar to some of the Freudian theories of defense mechanisms. Depression could be seen as a coping mechanism, perhaps that when overused stops being productive.
     So, you may be wondering, what is the answer to the trivia question? From positive psychology’s point of view, pretending may help. If depression is biologically based, pretending to be happy won’t help but it may also hinder the person’s ability to cope with depression. The evolutionary school of thought would also find pretending to be happy as a mistake, since it would make the person avoid our brain’s innate mechanism designed to help us cope with stress.
     My answer to the question is that depression is a complex phenomenon. The solutions, therefore,  are complex as well. Sometimes, simple positive psychology interventions will help get someone unstuck  & enable them to try out more positive ways of coping with their problems. Not as a denial of the issues, but as an adjunct to other kinds of therapy. Hence, the man from HealthTap would surely need to continue working in therapy on the issues that have led to his long standing depression. Having better phone conversations with his prospective clients could lead to more sales. More sales could enhance his self esteem & increase his feelings of self worth. On the other hand, examining the roots of his depression in therapy would be necessary as well. In addition, not all depressions are the same. Some are more reactive, some seem to be more biological in origin. The more biologically based types of depression, which often run in families, have a greater risk of suicide, making medications a necessary element in the treatment. Sometimes, without medication, the person simply cannot address the issues in therapy at all.
     Thanks for all your thoughtful comments, I hope you will continue sharing your thoughts on this & other posts in the future. I hope this has shed some light on the subject & some of the therapeutic interventions available for you or those you know who are struggling with depression.

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