Depression is often considered an emotion that can spread like a common cold. If you aren’t vigilant, a friend’s gloomy mood might also send you down a dark spiral of despair. Studies suggest that depressed people tend to be found in “clusters.”
Some experts, however—such as Thomas House, senior lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Manchester—believe this research may be slanted. In a recent article for the Atlantic, House said,
When you find clusters of friends who are depressed, it’s possible there’s a third factor at play—maybe they're all heavily drinking or they’re all doing something else that makes them more predisposed to depression.”
Instead, Thomas and his fellow researchers believe that happiness could very well be the emotion that friends pass onto friends. Their recent study, which was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. analyzed data from over 2,000 high school students. They began by asking students to take a survey of their depression symptoms. The students were also asked to report who their friends were over a period of six to 12 months. The high-school kids that were analyzed as clinically depressed had no influence on their friend’s mood. However the same depressed kids, who had friends that were considered to be in the “healthy mood” range, twere twice as likely to recover from their depression. Likewise, the kids that didn’t start out as depressed halved their chances of remaining that way if their friends were also in the “healthy mood” range.
It makes sense when you consider how contagious laughter (a symptom of happiness) can be. Someone starts giggling at something and before you know it, you’re laughing along with them, even if you’re not sure why. There are other social examples such as summer camps and spas, both notoriously filled with happy, positive people and nearly impossible to leave feeling depressed. On the more scientific end of the spectrum, there have also been studies suggesting that high-quality social relationships can lower an individual’s chances of becoming depressed.
Of course it remains unclear what these healthy high school friendships consisted of. Previous research has suggested that in order for a positive relationship to have a healthy influence on a person, that individual has to feel like their basic psychological needs such as autonomy and competence are being respected.
The same article in the Atlantic sites yet another study that underlines the importance of helping one feel supported without taking away a sense of autonomy. Examples might be: assisting a depressed friend run errands or doing simple chores.
…That could make the person feel better,” The article explains. “But only if he sees it as an expression of love, rather than something that’s taking away his control over his own life.”
The truth is, it’s not always easy to be around someone who is down in the dumps, but understanding that you can help, often simply by remaining by their side, may be motivation enough to stick around and help them out of it.
Image via Flickr
Spreading of healthy mood in adolescent social networks via royal society publishing
How Friendship Fights Depression via The Atlantic
Social network determinants of depression via US National Library of Medicine