Positive Life Events Increase Depressive Symptoms

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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  • D.T.S

    April 15th, 2013 at 11:46 PM

    Npositive events promoting negativity?!Have to be a negative person for that to happen!

  • Phoenix

    March 10th, 2020 at 6:41 AM

    I have had chronic depression since a traumatic event at the age of four. I have learned to look at life “through rose colored glasses” to counteract my illness. I recently got a new job, and I’m so excited! It seems like a great fit for me and my life, and my outlook is extremely positive. However, I have been experiencing increased symptoms of depression since my hire date. It seemed confusing to me: if the job is a good fit, why would I be more depressed? That’s when I found this article. In spite of the dense medical jargon, it makes so much sense to me. All changes bring stress, and that stress is negatively impacting my psychological condition. I’m going to keep going forward with this job. I have faith that, as I adjust to the changes, it will become less stressful, and my depression will become less severe. I’d say that’s a truly positive attitude! It doesn’t change that I feel the way I feel. Knowing that how I feel has a reasonable explanation, that helps me keep going. Your attitude, however, that negatively impacts me. Sorry you felt the need to share your negativity, and that I had to deal with its effects. Luckily, the fires of the hell that is depression forges warriors who don’t give up easily!

  • Leslie U

    April 16th, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    I have to say that I anot surprised. It seems that with anyone I have ever known who has been depressed, it is never about being able to see anything positive, and they are not affected in amy way except temporarily by positive life events. They still find a way to see things in a negative light and that honestly makes me so sad. I hate it when someone seems destined to go through life viewing the cup as half empty

  • Linc

    April 16th, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    This get me all confused-i don’t know what they are talking bout with affect here. Then, throw in a few effects and i don’t know my hiney from a hole in the ground. i guess someone smarter ‘an me is gonna have to explain this one to me.

  • Flanders

    April 16th, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    Totally makes sense to me when explained the way the author explains it. At first, it’s like what the what? Good things make depressed people more depressed. Huh? But, then when it’s explained like good things are often stressful event and stress makes depressed people more depressed, it’s all good in my brain now.

  • Nana

    April 16th, 2013 at 9:36 AM

    It really is too bad that such a great thing can be so depressing for a person. I mean. Come on. These people are already struggling. With depression and all. And then not only are they depressed. They can’t even enjoy the good stuff. I knowright now if I had a big old birthday cake to eat I’d be so happy. But then in the morning. I’d just be depressed. Cuz I’d have eaten all of it. And not lost weight like I want to.

  • Pearson

    April 16th, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Depression is such a nasty, nasty disease. It robs you of your ability to interact in a positive way in the world, leaving behind a sad, irritable person who is often sleep deprived. And, to think they can’t even enjoy the blessings of life. Such a hard thing.

  • shonda

    April 16th, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    Okay, now i get it.

    I always wondered why my moma would still be so sad when i got good grades sometimes sadder than when i got bad grades.

    but if she was depressed like this says it does kind of make sense that she couldn’t be happy for me cuz it would really hurt my feelings a lot.

    like when i said i was getting married to my sweet husband or having her a grandbaby she’s always seem happy for a minute but then next day she was saddr than she was before i told her about it.

    I’m realy happy to know that people study this stuff so people like me dont’ think theres something wrong with them all the time cuz there momas or daddys weren’t happy for them

  • ciara

    April 16th, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    this has happened to me while being depressed.one time was when my aunt died and I went into depression for several weeks.any happy event just made it worse.whether it was a celebration I happened to see on TV or just people talking cheerfully it made me feel worse.I am not always like that but it did happen.at least happy it isn’t always that way.

  • Clare maloney

    April 17th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    I have a sneaking suspicion that you have to already be depressed for this to happen to you.’

    If you are in a healthy state of mind then things that are positive in life are going to be just that. If you are depressed though, I suppose that it could be hard to find happiness in just about anything. It makes me sad not only for the person who is depressed but it is almost even sadder for the families who have to live with this. Think about the kids, they are never going to feel like anything is good enough because if it is the parent who is depressed, there will never be anything good enough to pull them up out of their depression. And the kids are going to pay for that.

  • Emma W

    April 29th, 2017 at 5:33 PM

    Honestly, this is very accurate. I am not often depressed, but I experience extreme depression after exciting events I was really looking forward to. Such as concerts and conventions. I’m in one right now after comic con, I just wanted to know I wasn’t crazy. It’s partially just expectation vs reality, and partially returning to normal life when your emotions want to be somewhere else.

  • Val C

    May 2nd, 2017 at 10:45 AM

    I’ve struggled on and off with low level depression. I find whenever something fun/exciting happens I generally hit a low afterwards. It’s almost like the “high” wears off.
    For example , we lived in our old house for about 8 years and for the last 5 or so of those years I’ve been doing pretty great with emotions, through good and bad times.
    Recently though we just moved into a new house, and while that was a wonderful decision, and has been better for us than we could have ever imagined, I’m now hitting a pretty hard low two months in. I have a feeling that re-acclimating and trying to find a new norm will take me quite awhile and maybe even more time to get back to that great place again. It’s funny how I seem to crave change but then struggle with it afterwards.

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