Depression as an Ally

Depression may be your best ally. It is the one force that, like no other, makes us change our context.

What Is Depression?

One fine day, I was mildly depressed. Cruising Facebook, I came across a video of an over-the-top expressive gentleman who delivered a thought that changed my life: you are never depressed; you observe yourself in a depressed state. The difference is profound. If you are depressed, you are powerless. If you are the observer, you maintain agency.

Evolution has built into us fundamental drives. These drives were optimized over the years to support the individual and societal/tribal passing forward of genes. Years of evolution have created preferred paths of behavior — the “right” way to live your life. We developed drives — nature’s way of keeping us on the “right” path through a system of nudging, prodding, and occasionally forcing us to not deviate from what has worked so well in the past.

Hunger forces us to eat. Sleepiness forces us to sleep. What about depression? Depression is generally seen as something negative, unwanted — a sickness in need of a cure, a weakness to be ashamed of. But what if it is no different from hunger or sleepiness and is actually nature’s fundamental way of “fixing” us?

Our internal calculus is complex. While we may have some basic understanding of some drives (like hunger), the overall system remains a mystery. What’s left is to observe, analyze, and adjust. Thus let’s take a closer look at depression. What does it do?

Depression is a drive that forces us to disengage from our context. When we are depressed, we either A) shut down or B) take ridiculous steps that we might not even consider otherwise: switch jobs, cities, countries, families, etc. Either we leave our context, or we shut down and… the context leaves us. Either way: we disengage, refresh, and go forth in a new direction.

Let’s look at some examples:

It is often difficult for an adult to tolerate their parents for an extended period of time. Why? Perhaps because evolution ensured that children are forced out of the comfortable context of their home — otherwise they are less likely to have kids of their own.

Or why do we get depressed to the point of paralysis or irrational behavior in failed relationships or after breakups? Perhaps because we are designed to shift contexts and move on to find new partners, so that we can have our own children.

Depression becomes our riverbanks — keeping us on a path and forcing us back onto the “right path” when we deviate. And this is where things get really interesting: what if the world changes so much that old ways no longer make sense and there is no “right path”?

Depression in Times of Change

If we assume that depression is a mechanism to keep us on paths designed by evolution, what would happen when these paths no longer work? The world used to live in tribes, used to hunt and gather to eat, and used to find reproductive partners in a limited pool of people around them. What if all that changed?

What if people started living in high concentrations? What if they used apps to find potential partners? What if instead of talking face-to-face, they used text? What if they worked long hours in socially-isolated environments? Such dramatic deviations from what has worked in the past would naturally lead to an increase in population depression — the more different our lives are from our ancestors, the more depression one would expect. Perhaps this explains the phenomenon of a correlation between depression and use of the various social media apps.

It may be tempting to seek to restore the original order. While this approach may work on a family level (e.g. limiting children’s access to technology), it would be a futile attempt akin to seeking to undiscover the light bulb, forget nuclear reactions, reverse industrialization, or roll back modern medicine. Besides, what if there is a better way?

The Better Way

We are in uncharted territories. The world is changing and evolution is in full swing — after a few generations, some of us will not procreate and so certain behaviors may die out. Depression will likely remain prevalent in society for some time until a new stable state is achieved.

However, perhaps we can change this by evolving our approach to design and engagement of technology.

We can invest more consideration into our fundamental drives and seek to avoid disproportionately addressing certain drives while ignoring others. What are our long-term drives? They seem to come down to a combination of meaningful social integration, a drive for love and family, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. The short-term drives (food, sleep, sex, etc.) are only a part of that larger journey.

App developers can take these long-term drives into account. This may also be a good business decision, as it will lead to a healthier and more engaged user base.

Individually, when consuming technology, we may want to be mindful of our built-in drives, the unavoidable riverbanks, by taking steps to balance our short-term wants with the long-term consequences of engaging the world in a new way. We should trust that voice inside us — the result of the complex internal calculus, which we may never fully understand — that states: “Something is not working, you need a change.”

So next time when you feel depressed, welcome this voice and listen to it. Then change your context, exercise the autonomy that depression encourages, and perhaps even leverage technology to be happy in this new and strange age. Above all, be mindful of your drives, your riverbanks.

Neal Stephenson wrote in Cryptonomicon of one of his characters that he was a “stupendous badass”, as this character was the product of his ancestry, “a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses”. So, when feeling down, remember: you are a badass by design, and depression may be your best ally in improving your life.


Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I wrote this article, because I sincerely believe that it may improve some people’s lives when considering how to engage everyday depression on the range of sadness, loneliness, etc. This should go without saying, but this article is not about clinical depression.

Art by Eli Portman.