A special form of unipolar depression seems to be related to sunlight deprivation. It appears most frequently among people who live in high latitudes. There, during the long, dark winter months, the incidence of depression runs high.(17) The aptly named seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is related to levels of the light-sensitive hormone melatonin, which regulates our internal biological clocks.(18) Based on this knowledge, researchers have developed an effective therapy that regulates melatonin by exposing SAD sufferers daily to bright artificial light.(19)
Cycles of depression
Biology alone cannot entirely explain depression, however. We must also understand it as a mental and a behavioral condition. Initially, a negative event, such as losing a job, can make anyone feel depressed, but low self-esteem and a pessimistic attitude can fuel a cycle that keeps some individuals caught up in depressive thought patterns.(20)(21)(22)(23)
Probably because of low self-esteem, depression-prone people are more likely to perpetuate the depression cycle by attributing negative events to their own personal flaws or to external conditions that they feel helpless to change.(24)(25) (26)(27) Martin Seligman calls this learned helplessness. The resulting negative self-evaluation generates a depressed mode, which leads in turn
to negative behaviors such as crying. These behaviors encourage others to avoid the depressed individual. Consequently, depressed people feel rejected and lonely, which also feeds the cycle of their despair.(28)
A study of college students supports the notion that depressed people have a negative attribution style. Those who were depressed and who failed a test attributed their failure to a personal flaw—their lack of ability—while those depressed students who passed the test attributed their successes to luck. In comparison, non-depressed students took more credit for successes and blamed failures on external factors and on bad luck.(29) Moreover, students who have a negative attribution style have been found to earn lower grade point averages than their less negative-thinking classmates.(30)
The cognitive approach to depression points out that negative thinking styles are learned and modifiable. This implies that, if you work on changing the way you think, perhaps blaming yourself less and focusing more on constructive plans for doing better, you can ultimately change your feelings and your performance. Indeed, Peter Lewinsohn and his colleagues(31)(32) have found that they can treat many cases of depression effectively with cognitive-behavioral techniques. Their approach intervenes at several points in the cycle of depression to teach people how to change their
helpless thinking, to cope adaptively with unpleasant situations and to build more rewards into their lives.
Women are more vulnerable
Clinicians have noted that depression rates are higher for women than for men.(33)(34)(35)(36) According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema,(37)(38) the response styles of men and women once they begin to experience negative moods may account for the difference. In this view, when women experience sadness, they tend to think about the possible causes and implications of their feelings. In contrast, men attempt to distract themselves from depressed feelings, either by shifting their attention to something else or by engaging in a physical activity that will take their minds off their
current mood state.
This model suggests that the more ruminative response of women—characterized by a tendency to concentrate on problems—increases women’s vulnerability to depression.(39) From a cognitive approach, paying attention to one’s negative moods can increase thoughts of negative events, which eventually increases the quantity and/or intensity of negative feelings.
Changes in patterns of depression
The incidence of depression and the age at which it strikes is changing—at least in the United States. According to Martin Seligman, depression is between 10 and 20 times as common as it was 50 years ago.(40) At mid-century, most casualties of depression were middle-aged women, but now it has become a teenage problem—still more prevalent in females than in males.
Currently, the average age of individuals diagnosed with depression in the United States is between 14 and 15 years. Seligman blames this increase in occurrence and decrease in age to three factors: (1) an out-of-control individualism and self-centeredness that focuses on individual success and failure, rather than group accomplishments, (2) the self-esteem movement, which has taught a generation of schoolchildren that they should feel good about themselves, irrespective of their efforts and achievements, and (3) a culture of victimology, which reflexively points the finger of blame at someone or something else.
Adapted from Psychology, Third Edition, by Philip G. Zimbardo,
Ann L. Weber and Robert Lee Johnson.
1. Styron, W. (1990). Darkness Visible: A memoir of
madness. New York: Random House.
2. Seligman, M. E. P. (June 1973). “Fall into helplessness.”
Psychology Today,, 7 43-48.
3. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression,
development and death. San Francisco: Freeman.
4. Robins, L.N., Locke, B.Z., and Regier, D.A. (1991).
“An overview of psychiatric disorders n America.” In L.N, Robins & D.A.
Regier (Eds.), Psychiatric disorders in America: The epidemiologic
catchment area study. New York: Free Press.
5. Miller, M.W. (Dec. 2, 1993). “Dark days: The staggering
cost of depression” The Wall Street Journal, p. B1.
6. Horgan, J. (November 1996). “Multicultural studies: Rates of depression vary widely throughout the world.” Scientific American, 275(6),
7. Weissman, M. M., Bland, R. C., Canino, G. J., Faravelli,
C., Greenwald, S., Hwu, H. G., Joyce, P.R., Karam, E.G., Lee, C.K., Lellouch,
J., Lepine, J.P., Newman, S.C., Rubio-Stipec, M., Wells, J.E., Wickramarante,
P.J., Wittchen, Hl, Yeh, E.K. (July 24-31, 1996). “Cross-natural epidemiology
of major depression and bipolar disorder.” Journal of the American
Medical Association,276, 293-299.
8. Andreasen, N.C., Rice., J., Endicott, J., Coryell,
W., Drove, W.W., & Reich, T. (1987). “Familial rates of affective disorder.”
Archives of General Psychiatry, 44, 461-472.
9. Plomin, R., Owen, M.J., & McGuffin, P. (1994). “The
genetic basis of complex human behaviors,” Science, 264, 1733-1739.
10. Weissman, M.M., Merikangas, K.R., Wickramarante,
P., Kidd, K.K., Prusoff, B.A., Leckman, J.Fl, and Pauls, D.L. (1986).
‘Understanding the clinical heterogeneity of major depression using family
data.” Archives of General Psychiatry, 43, 430-434.
Hirschfeld, R.M.A., and Goodwin, F.K. (1988). “Mood disorders.” In J.A.E.
Hales & S. C. Yudofsky (Eds.), The American Psychiatric Press textbook
of psychiatry. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
12. Nemeroff, C.B. (1998, June). “The neurobiology of
depression.” Scientific American, 278, 42-49.
13. Davidson, R.J. (1992a). “Anterior cerebral asymmetry
and the nature of emotion.” Brain and Cognition, 20, 125-151.
14. Davidson, R. J. (1992b). “Emotion and affective style:
Hemispheric substrates.” Psychological Science, 3, 39-43
15. Bower, B. (1995, March 4). “Virus may trigger some
mood disorders.” Science News,142, 117.
16. Kendler, K.S., and Diehl, S. R. (1993). “The genetics
of schizophrenia: A current, genetic-epidemiologic perspective.” Schizophrenia
Bulletin, 19, 261-285.
17. Wehr, T. A., and Rosenthal, N. E. (1989). “Seasonality
and affective illness.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 829-839.
18. Campbell, S. S., and Murphy, P. J. (Jan 16, 1998).
“Extraocular circadian phototransduction in humans.” Science, 279,
19. Lewy, A. J., Sack, R. L., Miller, S., and Hoban,
T. M. (1987). “Antidepressant and circadian phase?shifting effect of light.”
Science, 235, 352-354.
20. Abramson, L. Y., Metalsky, G. I., and Alloy, L. B.
(1989). “Helplessness depression: A theory-based subtype.” Psychological
Review 96, 358-372.
21. Sweeney, P. D., Anderson, K., and Bailey, S. (1986).
“Attributional style in depression: A meta-analytic review.” Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 974-991.
22. Wood, J. V., Saltzberg, J. A., Neale, J. M., Stone,
A. A., and Rachmiel, T. B. (1990b). “Self-focused attention, coping responses,
and distressed mood in everyday life.” Journal of Personality and Social
23. Wood, J. V., Saltzberg, J. A., and Goldsamt, L. A.
(1990a). “Does affect induce self-focused attention?” Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 58, 899-908
. 24. Azar, B. (1994b, October). “Seligman recommends
a depression ‘vaccine.'” APA Monitor, p. 4.
25. Robins, C. J. ( 1988). “Attributions and depression:
Why is the literature so inconsistent?” Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology 54, 880-889.
26. Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism.
New York: Norton.
27. Seligman, M. E. P., Abramson, L. Y., Semmel, A.,
and von Baeyer, C. (1979). “Depressive attributional style.” Journal
of Abnormal Psychology 88, 242-247.
28. Coyne, J. C., Burchill, S. A. L., and Stiles, W.
B. (1991). “An interactional perspective on depression.” In C. R. Snyder
and D. O. Forsyth (eds.), Handbook of social and clinical psychology:
The health perspective (pp. 327-349). New York: Pergamon Press.
29. Barthe, D. G., & Hammen, C. L. (1981). “The attributional
model of depression: A naturalistic extension.” Personality & Social
Psychology Bulletin, 7(1), 53-58.
30. Peterson, C., and Barrett, L. C. (1987). Explanatory
style and academic performance among university freshman. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology 53, 603-607.
31. Lewinsohn, P. M., Sullivan, J. M., and Grosscup,
S. J. (1980). “Changing reinforcing events: An approach to the treatment
of depression.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice17,
32. Lewinsohn, P. M., Clarke, G. N., Hops, H., and Andrews,
J. A. (1990). “Cognitive-behavioral treatment for depressed adolescents.”
Behavior Therapy, 21, 385-401.
33. Leutwyler, K. (June 1995). “Depression’s double standard.”
Scientific American 272, 23-24.
34. Strickland, B. R. (1992). “Women and depression.”
Current Directions in psychological science 1, 132-135.
35. Turkington, C. (February 1992). “Depression? It’s
in the eye of the beholder.” APA Monitor, pp. 14-15.
36. Weissman, M. M., Merikangas, K. R., Wickramaratne,
P., Kidd, K. K. Prusoff, B. A., Leckman, J. F., and Pauls, D. L. (1986).
“Understanding the clinical heterogeneity of major depression using family
data.” Archives on General Psychiatry 43, 430-434.
37. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1987). “Sex differences in unipolar
depression: Evidence and theory.” Psychological Bulletin101, 259-282.
38. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1990). Sex differences in
depression. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
39. Shea, C. (Jan. 30, 1998). “Why depression strikes
more women than men: “Ruminative coping” may provide answers.” The
Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 14.
40. National Press Club. (Summer 1999). Seligman on positive
psychology: A session at the National Press Club. The General Psychologist,