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The Evolutionary Impulse of Depression: An Interview with Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

facepalmIt doesn’t appear that there is a single person on this planet who is not affected by depression in some way. You’ve either experienced it directly or you have a family member or friend who has been caught in the throws of it. One in 10 adults report depression and that doesn’t count the millions more that  live in the shadows of shame and the millions more on top of that who simply live with some low grade life of apathy that doesn’t appear to lift. For this reason it has become one of the most important topics of our time.

That is why I am so happy to bring to you Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD, author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemicto give us some insight into why depression is so tenacious and how we can begin making small shifts toward greater health and well-being.

Elisha: Jonathan, what I find so interesting about The Depths is how you explain depression in evolutionary terms. Tell us more about the evolutionary manifestation of depression as we know it today.

Jonathan: Mood is a very ancient adaptation. It’s easy for most people to see that high moods could be useful in energizing behavior to pursue rewards, but, low moods are useful as well. Low moods focus attention on threats and obstacles and restrain behavior. When conditions are unfavorable, or when goals are unreachable, low moods pause behavior to ensure that an animal does not engage in fruitless efforts. This efficiency is important given that resources of every sort — time, energy, or money — are finite.

The problem is that there’s been a collision between our ancient mood system and our modern environment, which is setting low mood into overdrive. It’s created the perfect storm for mood. Ironically, depression is worse for us than in other mammals not because our species has more flaws than other species but because of our unique strengths. Advanced language enables wallowing; our ability to set ambitious long-term goals sets up new opportunities for failure; our elaborate culture presents expectations for happiness that cannot possibly be fulfilled.

Elisha: What inspired you to write The Depths?

Jonathan: There were two main reasons.

First, depression is just very personal for me. As a young adult, I suffered a punishing episode of depression that went on for about four years. It took away my mind, it took away my pride, it nearly took away everything, really. I emerged from it with a newfound respect for depression and its tenacity, which led me to want to understand it, and I changed fields and decided become a psychologist. The Depths ultimately reflects my thinking as it has developed over twenty years. It’s an attempt to use an evolutionary approach to mood to explain why it is that depression is for so many people often tenacious and resistant to treatment.

Second, I wanted to start a more intelligent national conversation about depression. For a long time, both our science and our discourse has been dominated by a biomedical approach that says that depression is an illness and that managing depression is about correcting a defect. But obviously, the search to discover a fundamental defect in the brain that causes depression has foundered and biological treatments have ultimately produced diminishing returns and literally millions of people who are frustrated and confused about the sources of their mood.  In a sense, we’ve learned to listen to Prozac but not to mood itself. So I also wrote The Depths to help people develop better understanding, better literacy about the sources of their mood, with the larger hope is that if people develop this understanding they can learn how better check low mood before it can grow into serious depression.

Elisha: When someone is struggling with depression or perhaps falling into relapse, what do you believe are some of the most supportive paths toward healing?

Jonathan: The Depths is very much a plea for realism about mood. One lesson learned from treating chronic pain is that it is tough to override responses that are hardwired into the body and mind. On the other hand, the book is also pretty optimistic, in the sense that many of the same pathways that are bringing so many into low mood states are also changeable. No we can’t change our temperament. But we can adjust our routines that feature too much work, too little light exposure, and too little sleep, for instance. We can also re-evaluate and reset our goals; so often when you see a person who’s struggling with depression it’s because he or she is unwilling to pull back from an unreachable goal (whether it’s a failed relationship or a failed career).

A major theme with the evolutionary approach to mood is that there are so many different ways to gain purchase on our mood. Moods are a clever adaptation precisely because they integrate multiple aspects of how well or poorly we are doing. Moods track key resources in our external environment (like food, allies, and potential mates) and our internal environment (for example, fatigue, hormone levels, and adequacy of hydration). What this means of course for someone who’s depressed that there are many ways to move towards wellness, which include altering how we think, the events around us, our relationships, and conditions in our bodies (by exercise, medication, or diet). Indeed, in my interviews I found that people who remained well after their depression often made a series of changes to their lives; these changes actually left them more resistant to depression in the future. In this sense, the trial of depression can make some people even stronger and wiser than they were before.

Elisha: Thank you so much for your wisdom Jonathan!

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

Depression image available from Shutterstock.

The Evolutionary Impulse of Depression: An Interview with Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

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. (2014). The Evolutionary Impulse of Depression: An Interview with Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Jul 2014
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