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Sometimes With Depression, Happiness Is Fleeting
 Mental Health Center Feature Story

Sometimes With Depression, Happiness Is Fleeting
New theory suggests that some struggle to sustain pleasure over time

Talk May Outshine Light for Seasonal Affective Disorder (HealthDay News) -- A new theory about depression has emerged, challenging the old belief that depressed people don't experience positive emotions.

It suggests that people who are depressed are capable of good feelings, but they just can't sustain the sensation.

"One of the ignored areas in depression is the possibility that one of the major abnormalities in depression is not so much a disorder of negative emotion but rather a disorder of positive emotion," Richard J. Davidson, senior author of the study that posits the new theory, told HealthDay. "The idea here is that patients with depression, or at least a subgroup of them, have a problem in sustaining or maintaining positive emotion."

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 27 depressed adults and 19 who were not depressed were exposed to positive images aimed at eliciting an emotional response. Participants were asked to sustain the good feelings for 45 minutes while undergoing a type of brain scan known as a functional MRI.

"What we found is that normal controls [people who were not depressed] are able to do this and show activation in areas of the brain that we know are important for positive emotion, especially the nucleus accumbens, which is critical for reward and positive emotion," added Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"The depressed patients showed activation in this area comparable to healthy controls in the beginning but were unable to sustain this activation over time," he said.

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting 14.8 million adults in the United States in an average year, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

Though depression is highly treatable through a combination of medication and psychotherapy, fewer than half of all depressed people seek treatment, one study reported.

One of the hallmarks of major depression is anhedonia, the loss of pleasure or interest in pleasurable activities. Scientists have long suspected that this was caused by a reduced capacity to experience pleasure.

Davidson and his colleagues hypothesize, however, that it actually might reflect a person's inability to sustain pleasure over time.

That is just one of the many symptoms of depression, reports Mental Health America. Other signs to watch for include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or empty mood.
  • Sleeping too much or too little, or middle-of-the-night or early-morning waking.
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain.
  • Restlessness or irritability.
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as chronic pain or digestive disorders.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy.
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless.
  • Thoughts of suicide or death.
Having five or more of these symptoms for two weeks or more could signal clinical depression. Mental Health America advises that anyone in that situation seek help from a doctor or a qualified mental health professional.

On the Web

To learn more about depression and other mood disorders, check out information from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

SOURCES: HealthDay News; Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director, Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Dec. 21, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online; U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (; Mental Health America (

Author: Karen Pallarito

Publication Date: Jan. 31, 2011

Copyright © 2011 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.


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