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Exploring the Upside of Depression

Sharon Begley, science editor for Newsweek and author of The Plastic Mind: New science reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves, just wrote an interesting article titled The Upside of Depression. In this article she reviews some recent research that basically flies in the face of the “Happiness” surge and says that depression is actually adaptive. In other words, it is part of our evolutionary make up.

How can this be?

She reviews an article titled The Bright Side of Being Blue, by J. Anderson Thompson at the University of Virginia and Paul Andrews at Virginia Commonwealth University who give a scientific argument that:

  • Depressive rumination can be good because it allows for analytical thinking that can be important when coming up with a solution for depressed mood. This may be the case, but sometimes the mind’s anxious habit of looking for a solution is exactly what keeps us stuck in depressed mood. The ruminative anxiousness seems to pour kerosene on the fire. At times letting things be, rather than falling into the trap of always having to “do something” about it, is just what the doctor ordered.
  • Depression tends to focus thinking. This is one of their findings, but it’s news to me. My experience is that people who suffer from depression feel more clouded and distracted with their thinking making it difficult to even pay attention to reading a magazine or book.
  • Depression leads people to seek isolation and this can be good as it allows for the space to think about what might have triggered the depression in the first place and therefore find a way out. She goes onto quote a study citing the importance of writing as an expressive way to come out of depressed mood. This is absolutely true, however the reason writing might be helpful is because it allows us to get our thoughts out on paper and externalize them, taking away the emotional charge of our thoughts and laying to rest their need to swim or “ruminate” in our minds. I’m not sure it’s the isolation that is the key factor here.
  • Prescribing rumination is what we need and people need to do is ruminate more, not less. The reason this might be helpful is because it takes away the pressure of constantly fighting the mind to stop ruminating or “finding a solution.” This is a classic technique of allowing the mind to be as it is, even giving it permission to do so. However, there needs to be a limit on this. For example, if you are going to ruminate more, there needs to be a time limit of 30 minutes on it as an example. If the mind still wants to ruminate, then you just tell it that you will give it more time tomorrow to do so, but for now, you’re going to stop. You may have to remind the mind of this over and over, but make sure to give it the time. Taking this struggle away and providing boundaries for the rumination can be enormously helpful.

Here is my take. While I disagree with pieces of the article, I don’t want to totally debunk the idea that there is a bright side to depression, because ultimately, I feel like having had depression gives someone the ability to notice it again in the future which is one of the things that this article is alluding to, have compassion and empathy for others who are struggling, and provides the opportunity for us to learn how to relate to our stress and pain differently. At the end of the day, these are all good nutrition for feeling well.

13th century Sufi poet Rumi said:

Keep looking 
at the bandaged wound. That’s where 
the light enters you. 

In other words, turning a kind attention to our difficult feelings such as sadness, anger, and even shame is important to learn how to do rather than our traditional habit of suppressing, repressing or always turning toward the “quick fix” to get rid of or avoid them.

With mild depression we have this opportunity, but with major depression, this seems like a distant possibility and at times we may need to distract ourselves to get a place where we are able to find the bright side of depression.

As always, please share your stories, thoughts and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Exploring the Upside of Depression

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is creator of the six month online program A Course in Mindful Living, author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind, the premier eCourse Basics of Mindfulness Meditation: A 28 Day Program, the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations. Join The Now Effect Community for free Daily Now Moments and a Weekly Newsletter. Dr. Goldstein is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles.

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APA Reference
Goldstein, E. (2009). Exploring the Upside of Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2018, from


Last updated: 4 Nov 2009
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Nov 2009
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