Is There an Advantage to Depression?

A rebuke to scientists who say sadness has a hidden upside

A number of years ago, when my husband and I were trying to decide whether to have our son assessed for ADHD, a friend gave me a copy of a book she highly recommended: The Gift of ADHD. She meant well, I think. Her reasoning ran somewhere along the lines of that truism continually recycled in bad pop songs: When one door closes, another one opens. If my son’s neural wiring was indeed defective, well, that probably was a good thing! If he couldn’t sit still in school, if he had trouble controlling his emotions, that just meant he would be a great athlete, maybe, or an intrepid explorer, or something special. Because God doesn’t make mistakes, right?

I never read the book.

I was reminded of my friend’s gift when I read this piece in the New York Times by psychologist Richard A. Friedman, who gently and politely pokes back at evolutionary biologists who see adaptive advantages in all sorts of maladies and pathologies. In particular, Dr. Friedman aimed his sights at those who argue there must be evolutionarily advantageous reasons for depression—that in some way, the disease allows those afflicted with it to improve their lives. Friedman acknowledges that studies show sadness may improve analytical reasoning, aid in separating truth from deception, and make sufferers more skeptical in general than their happy-go-lucky friends. But he points out that those studies weren’t conducted on subjects with clinical depression, the full-blown debilitative condition that threatens overall health and leads a sizable portion of its victims to commit suicide.

The notion that depression must confer some adaptive advantage is an alluring one. It’s akin to the widespread belief that madness is linked with genius—that because Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent van Gogh and Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain were crazy, crazy is somehow a desirable thing to be. Human suffering must have some purpose, must it not? Friedman eloquently debunks that romantic, destructive myth. Who’s to say what Plath’s poetry or van Gogh’s painting might have been like had they been treated for their illness? Depression was no gift; it robbed them of the chance to mature and grow.