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Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose?

I had a tough time in high school. Like many other young adolescents, I saw myself as fundamentally flawed, and felt a searing isolation. Nothing I looked forward to brought any hope. I stopped getting out of bed. I cut myself. I drafted a suicide note.

It was a terrible time that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But in a strange way, my self-destructive behavior may have had a benefit. I eventually dropped clues about my situation, leading to an intervention that put me on a better track. I was hospitalized. It scared me straight, highlighting a pathway of suffering I no longer wanted to indulge. I went back on medication and did what it took to stay at my school.

costly signal: According to the bargaining model of suicidality, an attempt to take one’s own life is a costly, and therefore honest, signal to one’s network—characteristics shared by a peacock’s tail.ngela Nicholson/PhotoPlus Magazine via Getty Images

One in six Americans will suffer a major depressive disorder at some point in life.1 That word—disorder—characterizes how most of us see depression. It’s a breakdown, a flaw in the system, something to be remedied and moved past.

Some psychologists, however, have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits. I’ve certainly considered whether it’s done that for me, both in high school and later in life. If they’re right, it means that our thinking about depression needs an intervention too.


Theories about the evolutionary function of depression are numerous.2 One of the most popular current ideas is the analytical rumination hypothesis. This idea was described most thoroughly in a long 2009 article by Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist now at McMaster University, and J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Student Health Services.3 Andrews had noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There’s an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one’s pain. There’s

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