01/05/2016 10:42 EST | Updated 01/05/2017 05:12 EST

I Just Don't Know How To Be Happy

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Man lying on sofa at home

Why are some people more prone to depression than others? The answer is far from straightforward. Many people are sad because their lives aren't going well. Failed relationships and employment problems account for many of these. But plenty of individuals are just sad and can't point to any specific reason. Some will even say, "I just don't know how to be happy."

So what is depression? It isn't like a typical disease that can be measured with a lab test. For this reason I think the best way to see depression is as a symptom. It is a mood state characterized by sadness or loss of pleasure. The question is what is creating the symptom? What makes the person feel a sense of despair? Is it due to physical changes in the brain? Is it the result of difficult circumstances? Is it related to personality? The answer is probably all of the above to varying degrees.


Sometimes the cause of depression is obvious. For example, a failed relationship, the loss of a loved one, or financial ruin can get even the most resilient person down. While we all react differently, and some of us can remain upbeat no matter what, the vast majority of individuals are prone to feelings of depression when life kicks them in the teeth. This may not be a disease in the medical sense but it sure looks like depression to me.


While I don't think this applies to most depressed people, there are indeed many who get depressed simply because there is something going on in their brains that is causing the sadness. We do see depression run in families. While this may be related more to temperament rather than illness as we will see below, occasionally depression strikes some people unexpectedly just like most diseases. Some people seem to have normal lives that get derailed by the occasional bouts of depression. There is no sense in pointing fingers at themselves or at circumstances. It is a physical thing, period.


And what role does personality play? This is a tough one. After all, everything is in the brain, including personality, so technically all causes of depression are physical. But when I think of personality I see it as separate from physical when referring to normal, or common, variations in a person's temperament as opposed to a specific disease process. Here are some examples.

Some people just can't let things go. Nothing is quite right to them. It seems that every task they take on is a fight. This can serve them well when they are in control but few of us can always be. Depression is a common result of this way of thinking.

Others have a temperament where they always want to please others. This pushes them to do so much for others that they forget themselves. When things don't work out they are devastated.

Still others seem to have very low self-esteem from the start. There appears to be no clear reason for this. Many grow up under normal circumstances in loving homes. It's just the temperament they are born with. But because of how they see themselves, all minor mistakes are seen as proof of their failures and all successes are seen as just plain luck. This distorting pattern keeps feeding the negative self-esteem.

Our personalities are filters through which events are experienced. Depression is far more often the result of the filters rather than of the events.

I could go on but the point is that we are all born with certain personality tendencies. This is molded by the environment in which we live and learn. This means that many depressed people will not be able to point to any specific circumstances that are the cause of their struggles. There is no specific disease process taking place. Instead they will need to examine how they see themselves and how they experience life.

Regardless of the cause or causes of depression, both medical and psychological treatments can be effective. But the ones that seem to have the longest lasting results focus on how we see the world. Our personalities are filters through which events are experienced. Depression is far more often the result of the filters rather than of the events. And it is these filters that are the targets of the most successful treatments.


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