Negative and positive affect have been studied at length with respect to depression and anxiety. Although negative affect presents similarly in people with both mood states, positive affect does not. Specifically, people with anxiety experience both positive and negative affect, and increases in positive affect do not cause decreases in negative affect. However, people with depression do see symptom improvements when they have increases in positive affect. In fact, research has suggested that high trait positive affect or increases in positive affect can act as buffers against relapse in depression. Major life events have also been considered as influential on depressive and anxious symptoms. But they have not been examined as positive or negative life events, or in relation to affect. Therefore, John H. Riskind of the Department Psychology at George Mason University in Virginia recently conducted a study to illuminate this aspect of depression.
Using two separate experiments, Riskind looked at whether or not positive affect provided a protective effect against negative affect in college students with depression, and also how negative and positive life events affected mood. He found that unlike symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression were directly impacted by positive affect. The participants with depression and low baseline positive affect had higher levels of symptomology than those with high positive affect, regardless of their level of negative affect. This supports the theory that positive affect does directly influence symptoms of depression.
When Riskind looked at life events however, he found quite a different outcome. “Individuals who had few negative events and the most positive events seemed to be at far greater (rather than lower) risk for increased depression.” This result was quite unexpected, but Riskind believes can be explained in several ways. First, individuals who experience a spike in mood due to a positive event often quickly return to their previous mood state. For the participants here, the sudden spike and then decline could exacerbate stress and increase symptoms of depression. Second, the experience of a positive event, such as getting married or taking on a new job, can also cause anxiety, tension, and psychological stress. These emotions, even though borne out of a positive event, can increase negative symptoms. Finally, positive events often mean change, which can be very unsettling to some people, further increasing the risk of depressive symptoms. The results presented in this study provide a unique look into the relationship between positive events and depression, but are limited to some degree. Future work should expand upon these findings by using a broader demographic base of participants and by assessing the influence of other psychological conditions.
Riskind, John H., Evan M. Kleiman, and Karen E. Schafer. (2013). “Undoing” effects of positive affect: Does it buffer the effects of negative affect in predicting changes in depression? Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 32.4 (2013): 363-80.ProQuest. Web.
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