Good times with friends really can fight depression

People with symptoms of depression may not feel like socializing, but doing something fun with friends can improve mood, a new study shows.

“It’s the social activities—positive, everyday experiences that involve other people—that may be most likely to brighten the mood of those struggling with depression,” says Lisa Starr, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

“…if you can help depressed people to engage in positive experiences—despite their low motivation to do so—their mood may improve”

The findings, based on real-life events, contradict earlier laboratory-based studies that suggest the moods of people with depression are relatively unresponsive to positive stimuli.

In other words, when people with depression experience a positive event in the laboratory—like receiving a financial reward—their mood is unlikely to improve markedly. The crux here is that laboratory research doesn’t always translate to real-life settings.

The new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, is one in a growing number of studies to examine how real-life events with direct relevance to the study participants affect their moods. The researchers wanted to know if people with elevated levels of depression felt better when good things happened to them.

The answer is simple—yes. The same is true for the expectation of good things to come.

“Consistent with previous data, we found that people with higher levels of depression are less likely to anticipate that tomorrow will include positive experiences,” says Starr. “However, when they do have moments of anticipating positive next-day experiences, it’s linked to reductions in daily depressive symptoms.”

Social media may not fill the ‘social void’

The study included 157 young adults of whom two-thirds had mild, moderate, or severe depressive symptoms. The remaining third had no symptoms, allowing the authors to examine whether the level of depressive symptoms changes the way people respond to positive experiences.

The study subjects completed a two-week online diary, tracking their mood as it related to recent and anticipated positive events in their lives–like time spent with friends, or exercising.

Those with greater baseline dysphoria, that is to say those who reported higher levels of depressive symptoms at the onset of the study, showed stronger associations between daily uplifts and lower daily depressive symptoms, particularly when the uplifts were interpersonal in nature.

Generally speaking, those who are depressed are less likely to anticipate positive next-day experiences. However, when they did anticipate positive experiences, they experienced greater reductions in their depressed mood.

“The findings have really important implications for treatment and are especially compatible with a treatment model called Behavioral Activation, which suggests that if you can help depressed people to engage in positive experiences—despite their low motivation to do so—their mood may improve,” says Starr.

Source: University of Rochester