Depression is a common but serious mood disorder. About 19 million American adults are living with major depression.
"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!" This saying is
drummed into us from a young age, when our tower of building blocks
keeps collapsing or we just can't get the hang of riding a bicycle.
Perseverance is praised and we are told that only with the right
motivation will we be able to achieve the aims we have set ourselves.
‘Patients with depression find it easier to abandon unattainable goals, suggests psychological study at the University of Jena.’
"That may hold true in many areas of life, such as work, sport or
the family," says Prof. Klaus Rothermund of Friedrich Schiller
University Jena (Germany). But an over-ambitious life plan can also
prove to be a trap, adds the Professor of General Psychology. This is
the case when the goals pursued are unattainable.
"Some people develop depression as a result of such futile efforts,"
says Rothermund. The fact that the goal remains unattainably distant,
however hard a person tries, makes them experience helplessness and
suffer from a loss of control. However, this must not inevitably be a
Depression can actually create opportunities for
sufferers, as Psychology student Katharina Koppe and Prof. Rothermund
have now demonstrated in a study. In the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
they show that patients with depression are significantly more
successful than healthy individuals at letting go of unattainable goals
Giving up in order to win
And, from a psychological point of view, that is a great advantage.
"The one, who gives up, wins," says lead author Katharina Koppe, "even
if that sounds paradoxical at first." The ability to disengage,
according to the psychologists, represents an important adaptive
function of depression. Put simply: if the discrepancy between my
personal goal and my current possibilities is too large, I would be
better off looking for a more realistic goal and abandoning the old one.
In their study, the Jena University psychologists gave patients with
depression and healthy participants the simple task of solving
anagrams. These are words in which the letters are in the wrong order.
For example, the anagram SIEGOT should be rearranged to make EGOIST. The
participants had to solve as many anagrams as possible within a
specific time. What the participants did not know was that some of the
anagrams were unsolvable, as it was impossible to rearrange them to form
a meaningful word.
"These unsolvable tasks represented unattainable
goals, which it was necessary to give up as soon as possible in order to
use the time effectively," explains Katharina Koppe. It emerged from
the experiment that the patients with depression spent less time in
total on the unsolvable anagrams than the control group, while the time
spent working on the solvable tasks did not differ between the two
Crisis as an opportunity for personal development
Although this test involves a very simple type of task, which can
doubtlessly not be equated one-to-one with other challenges of daily
life, the psychologists do see in it important indications for a change
in our view of depression. "The general lack of motivation that is
typical of many patients with depression apparently gives rise to a
greater ability to abandon goals, and one could use this in therapy,"
Prof. Rothermund says.
One strategy could be to identify the
unattainable goals that have led to the patients being depressed, and
then specifically support the patients in disengaging themselves. "If we
stop seeing depression simply as a psychological burden, which just
needs to be removed through therapy, we might also be able to use the
patient's crisis as an opportunity for personal development," says
Katharina Koppe. First of all, however, considerably more research is
needed on this topic.