People Who Have Depression May Be More Empathetic and Selfless, Study Finds

Updated 05/17/19
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Depression is an unmistakably taxing illness that presents what may feel like insurmountable difficulties for the more than 300 million people of all ages around the world who deal with the disorder. However, a study published in Nature Human Behavior in 2017 found that a positive character trait belies this mental illness. As Motherboard reports, those who are more susceptible to depression tend to also be more selfless and empathetic.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers asked participants to play a money-based game with a strong element of economic inequality and unfairness to it. Those who showed elevated brain activity in areas associated with depression while playing the game were also more likely to demonstrate signs of clinical depression down the line. More specifically, some participants, dubbed the prosocials, rejected money from unfair offers that didn't promote equality for all, while others, the individualists, were more willing to accept the money despite obvious inequities.

"People with depression commonly demonstrate increased concern for others or for the perspectives of others," explains the science publication. "More precisely, prosocial attitudes predict depression, which is in contrast to individualist attitudes. Individualist here basically just means selfish or relatively selfish," the authors continue.

For example, those with a prosocial attitude are more willing to help others or society as a whole without the expectation of a reward. "Prosocials have an almost unrivaled capacity to give up their time and energy for others, even at a cost to themselves," write Megan Speer and Mauricio Delgado, psychology researchers from Rutgers University, of the new study. Unfortunately, that same "deep empathetic concern for disadvantage" can ultimately weigh a prosocial person down emotionally, resulting in mental health issues like depression.

Speer and Delgado also note that these issues are only becoming more prominent. "Widening economic inequity has become an increasing concern for society and has been implicated as a source of several psychiatric diseases including depression," they write.

If you were curious, this isn't the first time that researchers have made a connection between people with depression and an increased level of empathy for others. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders back in 1994 came to a similar conclusion, Motherboard points out.

Although depression is a burden, it's clear that those affected by the mental illness also have immensely positive character traits like empathy and emotional intelligence. It's a small, but powerful silver lining that shouldn't be forgotten.

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