Last month, we published an in-depth series on depression. One of the most insightful books I came across during my research for it was The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. The author, Jonathan Rottenberg, makes the case that depression, or low mood, is an evolved trait that served our pre-historic ancestors well. However, what was once an adaptive trait is now maladaptive due to our stressful, fast-moving modern environment. In today’s podcast, Dr. Rottenberg and I discuss how looking at depression through an evolutionary lens can give us a new perspective on treating and managing it. A must listen if you or someone you know is suffering from depression.
- What depression is exactly
- The science of mood
- A theory of why humans evolved to be depressed
- Why our modern environment has made a formerly adaptive trait maladaptive
- An evolutionary approach to depression management
- How depression can actually be useful to you today
- And much more!
I can’t recommend The Depths enough. It provides some much-needed nuance to the discussion going on today about depression. In addition to checking out Jonathan’s book, also check out his blog on Psychology Today called Charting the Depths and his Facebook Page where he posts articles and links on depression research.
Listen to the Podcast!
Listen to the episode on a separate page.
Subscribe via iTunes. (Please give us a review if you enjoy the podcast. It helps others discover us.)
Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcasts. Back in March and April, this is March and April 2015, this year, we did an in-depth series about depression. The symptoms of depression, what causes depression, how depression affects men differently than from women. Also, what you can do to manage your depression. A lot of people resonated with that because they or someone they knew are struggling with depression. One book that really resonated with me as I was researching for the series was a book called, “The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.” It’s by Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg. He’s a professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. He specializes in emotion [inaudible 00:02:22] on major depressive disorders. Anyways, it is the book, “The Depths” he makes the case that depression is actually an evolved tendency or trait in human beings. At one time, it served an adaptive purpose or long ago past. Today, the reason why we see so many people depressed is that our, which is not our emotional system isn’t set up for our modern environment. With all the stress and lack of sleep, sedentary lifestyle, etcetera, etcetera. It’s a fascinating book and it gives you a much more new [inaudible 00:02:58] of view of depression.
Today, I’m going to show Dr. Rottenberg I can discuss this theory. This evolutionary theory of the origins of depression. How this view of depression can change how we approach treating it. If you are struggling with depression or if you know someone who’s struggling with depression, I think you can get a lot of the show. A lot of interesting insights. So let’s do this.
Jonathan Rottenberg, Welcome to the show.
Dr. Rottenberg: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: Your book is called, “The Depths.” It’s about depression. Before we get into the meat of your book, it’s just completely fascinating, let’s start with this. What is depression? Because, you know, I’m writing a series or posts about depression right now. I’ve been doing so much research about it. It seems like every book I’ve read has a different idea or conception of depression. It’s confusing. I’m honestly like, I’m more confused now about depression than I was before. How do you approach, what is depression for you? How do you define it?
Dr. Rottenberg: The definition is very important because how you define the problem is going to very much guide you to the kind of solution that you might follow. Depression for me, it just actually does follow the psychiatric definition of depression. It’s a mood condition, which is to say, people who are depressed report that they feel low, they feel sad, they feel blue, and they also report that they’re unable to experience pleasure in the things that normally brought them joy, things that they were normally interested in. That joy, that pleasure is now absent. It’s a smooth state that unlike ordinary sadness, you might experience some kind of disappointment or you might have a setback. This sadness is very hard to shake. Clinical depression person, not only has this low mood, but then has a number of other symptoms that are associated with the low mood. They’d go on for weeks. They can go on for months. They can even go on for years. In addition to the low mood, the person will have trouble sleeping, they might lose their appetite, they have trouble concentrating, they’re very fatigued. Some of the most troubling parts of depression is the person feels that life is not worth living. They might think about hurting themselves. They might even attempt suicide. Tragically, some people who have depression die by suicide. The symptoms can be very, very serious.
Brett McKay: Okay. You talked about mood. That’s sort of interesting because you come from a mood science perspective. That’s what you do, it’s mood science. Can you explain what mood is? How’s that different from, say, temperment or feelings?
Dr. Rottenberg: Mood is a very important, organizing idea in Psychology because our moods, not only reflects our feelings. We talk about, I’m in a good mood, I’m in a bad mood. Feelings are a part of what mood is. But moods also organize us. When we’re in a good mood, we only feel good but we’re prepared to take certain actions. For example, I’m in a good mood and that’s when I want to get together with friends. That’s when I want to have fun. Conversely, when I’m in a really low mood, I tend to withdraw. The mood actually makes me more likely or less likely to do certain things. Mood actually have this ability to tend upon us so the change or cognitions, the change what’s going on in our body. They’re more than just feelings, they actually organize our activities.
Brett McKay: Okay. Humans aren’t the only ones who experience moods. Animals do as well?
Dr. Rottenberg: Yeah. You can have an interesting conversation about what, where on the phylogenetic chain does mood begin. Does in amoeba? Because it can approach a nutrition grade and have mood. Probably, that’s up to the last ticket term but certainly other mammals, they have brains that are very similar and have their organized tasks. They have maybe the same illusionary goals to survive, to reproduce, to mate, to make alliances and so forth. They too have moods to help organize these activities even though they can’t report. A chimpanzee cannot report I’m feeling sad. It nevertheless, when the modern chimpanzees sees the baby chimpanzee die, it has a very similar behaviors and very similar things going on inside the mother chimp’s body as human’s do when they’re grieving the loss of their own infant.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think you’re write about that in the book. Actually, it’s really sad about what happens when a chimp mourns the death of her baby. When she holds it, tries to like revive it. It’s really touching. It was pretty sad.
Dr. Rottenberg: Yeah. It is sad. But if you think about it, we should be grateful that we have this capacity when something really bad happens like, you’re a mother and you’ve just invested nine months in a baby and your baby dies. This is a moment to stop and think about what your next move is. It’s not, in humans the grief, the loss of a loved one is almost universal. Across different cultures, across history, there maybe different rituals for grief. But always, there is this stopping and pausing. Low mood again, organizes that it forces us to think what does this person mean to us, what do we do now, now that they’re gone, how do we carry on. This is actually useful. Imagine if we paid no attention and we just went on as we were before when something that serious happened. Maybe, they died because there was an illness sweeping the land or because there were enemies about. That death is always a sign to pay attention what’s going on and what can we learn from this. Low mood makes us stop. It makes us analyze the environment really carefully. Parts of it so you don’t repeat the same mistakes that got us into this situation in the first place.
Brett McKay: Well, at least, it sort of sends us the meat of your book. You make the case that depression maybe may have an evolutionary purpose. When people hear that, I guess the first thing that came to my mind was that how can something that we see as now adaptive. Because no one wants to be depressed. It makes us feel terrible. You wanted to stay home all the time and not do anything. How can that be adaptive?
Dr. Rottenberg: You have to think about evolution and what the point of evolution is. The point of evolution is survival, reproduction. The point of evolution is not happiness. And so there are many things that evolution has clearly selected for that are not pleasant. In addition to low mood, pain comes out. A very good example when you feel pain, you will guard an injured site in your body. You won’t move it. Pain makes you not want to do things sort of like depression makes you not want to do things. But again if they didn’t have it, you would be unable to heal. The serious injury become much worse. Similarly, at anxiety, which is another, it’s a very unpleasant state. But if we were unable to anticipate dangers. There’s organisms that were unable to anticipate danger, sadly are no longer with us. And so we are left with this illusionary legacy to be capable of these anxiety states which sometimes, become very unpleasant. Just like low mood, sometimes become very unpleasant and can even become very crippling. The capacity, the ability to have low mood in the first place, I think the evidence is pretty good that we see this across species. It’s not and accident that in across cultures and across species, there is this capacity.
Brett McKay: Why do we get depressed? What purpose does it serve? You just withdraw if things aren’t right and sort of re-evaluate. Is that the purpose of …
Dr. Rottenberg: Yeah. The mood system is incredibly sensitive to a whole variety of cues that are related to survival and reproduction. For example, over the eons when it’s dark, wormites are less active there are no rewards at night, it’s very hard to find edible berries by the moonlight. Conversely, when it’s layout, we typically have access to rewards. We feel our mood is much higher. We typically and you’d see this here in the northern hemisphere, during the winter, people tend to experience more low mood. That’s one contribution. Another contribution is your physical health. When you have a fever and you’re ill, your mood is much lower. Again, that’s to force you to slow down, to not pursue a goal as vigorously to allow your body to recover. Moods are also sensitive to the psychological state. Some people just does the situation. Some people experience a variety of shocks. Whether they get a poor grade on a test or they get rebuffed by a lover or they have problems on the job. Mood is responsive to those situations as well, in part, for the same reasons that there are some situations imagine you get fired from your job where just now, you’re in a predicament. You have to figure out what to do next. You should not hastily proceed where you’ve experience such a big loss. There’s a variety of things that can push people into a low mood. Unfortunately, what’s happening now is that a perfectly good adaptation low mood is being set off by a very large number of different things at the same time, half-creating the perfect storm for mood which explains why so many people are experiencing low mood and so many people are experiencing more severe depression for long periods of time.
Brett McKay: What are those things that are pushing more and more people into a low mood?
Dr. Rottenberg: To stay on the example of light. We evolved in the context that rotating the earth in twenty-four hour cycle of light and dark with reliably feeling more energy and alertness during the daytime than at night. Humans, when they moved into villages and started farming and permanent settlements. Initially, that was okay. But as they stayed in permanent settlements and became more urbanized, people got less and less daylight. In more recent times, this has really increased dramatically so that even in very sunny parts of the world. There’s one study in San Diego, the average says it is getting less than half an hour of sunlight. This is one of the most sunny place in the United States a day. It’s kind of been replaced with light that people are getting at night which is a really poor substitute for daylight. For example, people are lying in bed and looking at their laptop screens and their iPhone screens or their TVs, this is having a bunch of bad effects. The light does not benefit the mood system but it also tricks the body. It makes people, it makes it harder for people to get to sleep. Sleep is another thing which is very tight to mood. People are having more and more problems with sleep, imperfect as with this routine is. Because of the hectic lives that people often lead are getting less and less sleep. I would say two of the things that have immediately, say, have change that are contributing to this depression epidemic are lack of light and sleep. Unfortunately, there are a number of other things. Like I said, it’s kind of the perfect storm, so there are also things that are going on in the psychological environment that I think are very harmful to mood that I hope we get a chance to talk about.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Is it just our market economy? Is it just the constant stress of information overload? What are some of those things?
Dr. Rottenberg: Some of the things are actually quite paradoxical. Again, the typical view of depression, is that it’s a bad defect and it’s things that a person is doing wrong. People talk about a defective brain or defective genes and so forth. I think that the reason that there are so much depression is really not so much because of things that humans don’t do well or individual people who are defective as things that humans are really, really good at. For example, humans are really, really good at setting goals. They’re really good actually at setting goals about very abstract things. For example, setting goals about their happiness and one thing that has changed dramatically in the last thirty years or so is that more and more people have set these goals that I’m going to be very happy. That may sound like a benign goal but at no time in human history have people … So many people trying to deliver the state of kind of reliable euphoria. The mood system, again, it’s designed to absolutely periodically deliver a burst of pleasure when your first date asks you to the prom or you buy a groovy new car. You do get that shot of pleasure but people have this belief that they can feel happy all the time. Actually, there are books that you can buy that’s essentially saying here are the three steps that you need to take in order to feel happy all the time. It sounds benign but what’s actually happening is that many people are feeling okay or feeling somewhat down and depressed but are wondering why am I not happier? Is there something wrong with me? Why am I not happy as the people that I see on Facebook? My friends, I see their perfect vacations, their perfect families. They compare themselves to these other people. They compare their mood to what they think they ought to feel. They feel a lot worse. They start to feel very discouraged. It might be helpful to know that in reality, in no time in human history have ever people felt happy all the time. It really is an illusion.
Brett McKay: What should the goal be if you shouldn’t focus on happiness? What should you focus on?
Dr. Rottenberg: Sure. I think that it is important to find things that are meaningful in your life. As a consequence of pursuing those goals, I’ll bring my own case into this. Before I wrote this book, this is actually more than twenty years ago. I experienced a very severe episode of depression that lasted a very long time. It took a very long time for me to figure to how to kind of rebuild my life. I think that many of the reasons that I experienced depression is that I did not have a lot of different activities that I found meaningful. These activities, now I’m a psychologist and I find the study of mood to be very valuable. I also find that the advocacy work that I’m doing to help people who have depression be less isolating. That also is very meaningful. I started a family. I have now more hobbies. When I had depression initially, I really had put all of my eggs into one basket. I had this goal that I was going to become a famous historian. When that wasn’t going well, everything kind of collapsed. I guess, I would say, just to kind of summarize my experience and I think it would be relevant to a lot of people who are listening to your show is having the diversity of things that are meaningful to you, that are important to you. Don’t worry about whether you are ecstatically happy one day. You will as a byproduct of pursuing things that are meaningful experience more well-being. If you simply have the goal to be happier which is kind of like the goal, it’s one of these goals that the harder you run, the faster the treadmill goes. It’s sort of an impossible goal.
Brett McKay: Here’s the question I have. You’re talking about some of these benefits of low mood, that it allows us time to reflect, maybe informs us that maybe this is the goal we should stop pursuing and then pursue something else. When does that low mood shift to like severe depression where that the costs outweigh the benefits?
Dr. Rottenberg: That’s a great question. It’s not a question that has a really easy answer. Again, many things that humans are great at and I think are admirable qualities are important. I would not speak against. This idea that if you’re failing at an important goal … In America, we’re always told that no matter what you must persist. In part, because from a young age, kids are told that you can do anything. I don’t want to be cast as the gloomy person who says that you should give up on goals at the slightest idea. That’s low mood telling you to disinvest and so forth. At some point, many people persist whether it’s in a marriage, whether it’s in a career, whether it’s in some other venture. Fame, to achieve great riches, they persist. For a number of years, in spite of this escalating alone route. If they were able to disengage and think about some other things that they can do with their time to kind of, again, diversify their portfolio. Maybe develop a completely different goal completely that this depression which of course at a time was very destructive and very painful may end up in the long view being something that they are thankful for, that they wouldn’t trade because it helped them see other possibilities. In our current system , we only see depression as a sign of weakness. We see depression as a broken brain or cognitions that needed to be changed. People are really unable to make any use of these depressions as kind of our … Have been listening to Prozac but not depression that you kind of put a point on it.
Brett McKay: You have hit us on a little bit using this mood, evolutionary perspective. With someone who’s struggling with depression, what’s the best way to approach it? I guess you don’t … Do you try to cure depression? Or is it better to just try to manage it?
Dr. Rottenberg: You try to manage it, absolutely. The really good news, the book has a lot of alarming facts about the direction that we’re headed in. The difficulty of controlling depression is a public health matter. The incidence of depression is very high. It’s concentrated on young people. There’s also a lot of good news especially when you take this mood science perspective because moods are responsive to so many different things. If someone wanted to try medications which are the dominant approach to depression, I would say, that’s fine, but don’t limit yourself. You can also change your moods by changing your thoughts. People often have very negative thoughts during the depression. They’re often very harsh and self-accusatory kinds of thoughts. There are both formal treatments and books that people can read to try to get a little bit better control over their thoughts. People can improve their mood by simply learning to tolerate the low moods better, which is another problem that happens when you’re fixated on feeling happy all the time that these low moods become just intolerable. You can change your physical routine so things that you know, I think that many people now are benefit … [inaudible 00:27:01]beneficial to people who are really struggling with more significant low mood like exercise, in getting more sunlight. you’re changing your social environment so what happens in depression is that people tend to withdraw. That’s very understandable. You feel like hell. You don’t want to talk to anyone. You feel like you have nothing to say. But please stand to what you can schedule in some social interactions. Maybe, you know, you take it slow. But this is another way that by changing your social environment, you can change your mood. Finally, and this might take more time, but I think ultimately, can be part of the solution for many people is really re-examining your goals. Maybe you are committed to goals that really aren’t working for you. Some people are unable to do this all on their own and that’s okay. I would say, if you have the ability to find a therapist to work this, for any of this issues, I think that can be very helpful. I guess the mood approach is very eclectic in the sense that it sees that there are all this different tools available and that people should absolutely make use of them.
Brett McKay: What do you tell the person who, I’ve known people who have been in such a depressive state that they just have no motivation. The thought of even doing some of these things that you talked about just seems impossible. How do you bootstrap right to get to that point where you just you get out, you change your social situation. Or you get out into the sun, or to do these things that can help your mood when you’re just incapacitated?
Dr. Rottenberg: That’s a great point. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I think it’s very important to tell people who are struggling with depression that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with them. That they will eventually get better control over this mood state. But it may take some time and I really think it is dangerous to overpromise. But telling people that you know, from decades of epidimiology, that even the worst depression eventually will lift and the goal will be what can we do to accelerate that lifting? What often happens the folks that you’re describing and it’s understandable you feel so bad, that they’ve kind of lost morale. They’ve lost the belief that things can change. They’ve lost their belief in themselves. Before people can really take the concept of some of the actions that I’m talking about. I think it’s important to check in on them about their morale and be understanding that it may take some time but that they’re going to prevail. There is no question that one way or another you will outlast this depression. Whether you can hasten as exit, whether you can learn from it. That’s more up for grabs. But often, people have been led down the garden path, maybe given false promises, if they do this treatment in six weeks, they’ll be totally better. Then they’re very disappointed and they don’t believe the next person who makes promises to them. I think the point of that being very honest people is important.
Brett McKay: What does recovery look like? Because I think some people have this idea that if I do these things, call your behavioral therapy or I take this medication then one day I’ll just wake and I’ll just be happy. Is it more gradual? … You don’t become happy as though you’re not depressed. What does that look like?
Dr. Rottenberg: Yeah. I wish that there was more conversation about exactly this because I think this is really interesting and under discussed. What is the goal of treatment? If you just talked to people in psychiatry, in mainstream psychiatry where they treat with medications, the goal of the treatment, well, it’s to reduce your symptoms. That is great. But people are often satisfied that they’ve reduced symptoms to a degree. I think that we need to set the bar a bit higher. I think the goal ultimately, has to be that the person is satisfied with their life. That they’re no longer troubled by depression that they can’t manage. There may still be ups and downs. There may still be some symptoms but I think it’s really important to have an explicit conversation about what is the goal actually. I don’t think that by just saying that we’d like to reduce your symptoms. That’s, I think, setting the bar kind of low. Just saying that you have little symptoms could mean that you’re still having problems with your sleep, that you’re still having a concentration difficulty and that you’re still having trouble enjoying things. I think, it will be great to think more broadly about a more purposeful life. And as a consequence of that, as a consequence of figuring out some better strategies to manage your low moods. You’re just not as dominated by it. I think that really is the goal, to not be dominated by your moods. It’s going to be a part of your life. You may not always want the moods, you may not always like the moods that you’re having. But moods are no longer your enemy. Moods are to a greater extent your friend and something that you can use. So often, people might get better for a time and the depression comes back and they feel powerless. That can even be the worst thing about depression is this uncertainty and this feeling of having no power over your mood whatsoever.
Brett McKay: I should’ve asked this earlier, but I’ve read, are there differences between the way men and women express depression or experience it? Or is it pretty much the same?
Dr. Rottenberg: There are some differences. Depression is a bit more common in women. In some ways, our kind of our template for depression is a female one. I think that’s unfortunate because even if depression is more common in women than it is in men, depression is so common in people that’s incredibly common in men. Men may feel less comfortable talking about their depression, in that, society has identified this as a female problem. Again, it’s connected to this notion of weakness and men of course are not allowed. They’re not allowed by the dominant culture to express vulnerability or weakness. I think it is much … It’s difficult as it is to be depressed for anyone. It’s even more difficult for a man to struggle with depression. There is some greater barrier to letting other people know what is happening. It can be harder to get help. That’s really was true in my own case. I used about [inaudible 00:34:22], it can be an impediment to getting help and getting depression under control.
Brett McKay: In the book, that was really interesting. You talked about possibly reframing or looking at your depression in a positive light. And that it could be instructive and helpful or you’re going to find any meaning in the depression. How do you go about doing that? How does that help someone?
Dr. Rottenberg: Whether or not your depression is helpful or harmful really is something that you’re only going to be able to determine years later. It’s not, I’m not suggesting that it’s some eureka moment because depression and mood generally is … it is connected to the, very often, to the overall trajectory of one’s life. Whether or not you’ve learned all that you can learn from the situation that you’re in, takes a lot of time. In my own case, I experienced this depression which I believe was related to, I mentioned, having all of my career, aspirations and all my eggs in one basket but it was also related to certain idea of who I was. I saw myself as a kind of creature of the mind. When I started experiencing depression, my mental faculties really deteriorated. I was no longer able to do that kind of work. That was very threatening to me and made the depression that much worse. In my case, I learned that many things, many of the ideas that I have were wrong. I really learned that I could do something different and go into a new field. I think for other people, the lessons are going to be very different. There’s no one universal meaning of what depression is, in part, because it can be provoked by so many different things. Depression can result from very physical things. For example, if someone is starving, they did research on this on the Second World War, people experienced very low mood as the secondary feature of not getting enough nutrition. There’s not always some grand psychological interpretation but it often does have meaning but you don’t know immediately what it is.
Brett McKay: Jonathan, where can people find out more about your work?
Dr. Rottenberg: In addition to reading my book, I regularly blog on Psychology Today. The blog is called Charting the Depths in Huffington Post. If they’re interested in any of the advocacy work that I’m doing because talking with you is part of starting a broader conversation about depression. I’m very interested in doing that. I have a group called Come out of the Dark, you can even google the term, Come out of the Dark. In Come out of the Dark Campaign, you’ll see a number of links that come up better describing that activity. We have an active Facebook presence. The goal really is to expand our conversation about depression, get people just to kind of challenge the dominant way of seeing depression as being about defects and the created society where we devote, we understand depression better and we are more tolerant of people who struggled with depression. We make use of the people who have struggled and have come out of the other side.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jonathan Rottenberg, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Dr. Rottenberg: It’s a delight to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: Our guest here is Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg. He’s the author of the book, “The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.” You can find that on Amazon.com and other bookstores. Also, check out his Facebook page, just search for Jonathan Rottenberg. It’s R-O-T-T-E-N-B-E-R-G on Facebook or you can go to facebook.com/charting.the.depths. He posts a lot of interesting articles, latest research about depression. I think you’ll find a lot of useful information there.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcasts. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show, you got something out of it, I’d really appreciate it if you would give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or whatever it is you use to listen to Podcast that helps us get the word out about the Podcasts so I’d really appreciate that. Also, if you can just recommend the podcasts to a friend I’d appreciate that as well. Anyways, until next time. This is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: October 9, 2017