Depression is characterized by a negative mood and a flat disposition. In general, people with depression have limited emotional range and are unable to feel the ups and downs of emotions in the same way that non-depressed people do. One of the primary goals in the treatment of depression is to increase positive affect. This is usually done by assigning homework assignments. Clients are instructed to participate in activities that make them happy so that their mood may be lifted. But according to a new study by Yoona Kang and June Gruber of the Department of Psychology at Yale University, that may not be the best method.
Kang and Gruber recently conducted a study on 95 individuals, some of whom had major depression (MDD) or bipolar (BD), the rest of whom served as controls (CTLs). The participants were instructed to recall a memory of an event during which they had exhibited controllable happiness, and one of uncontrollable happiness. The goal was to determine if emotional regulation differed in each clinical group relative to non-clinical participants. But an unexpected finding emerged. Although the researchers found that the controlled happy memory caused engagement of emotional regulatory control in all of the participants, only the MDD group had significant increases in positivity.
“Interestingly, the MDD group also exhibited decreased cardiovascular arousal during the Positive-Uncontrollability condition as well,” said the team. In fact, it appeared that thinking about a time when they were uncontrollably happy created a relaxing effect in the individuals with MDD. Kang and Gruber believe that this is in direct contrast to some existing research that suggests that depressed individuals do not experience increases in positive mood by remembering positive events. They believe that this research suggests instead, that individuals with depression who practice emotional control during positive events may actually be impairing their ability to feel positive. The team also hopes future work looks deeper into how uncontrollable happiness can help improve the moods of people living with MDD.
Kang, Y., and Gruber, J. (2012). Harnessing happiness? uncontrollable positive emotion in bipolar disorder, major depression, and healthy adults. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030780
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