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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016 12:12 am

Inaction figure

Amy Alkon
My girlfriend got laid off four months ago, along with many of her co-workers. She is not making a serious attempt to find a job and is just living off unemployment benefits. She stays up until morning watching TV and sleeps until the late afternoon. I figured that she may be depressed so I encouraged her to go to counseling and to volunteer or take a course so she would feel productive, but she refused. She has a great work ethic when she’s employed so I’m very puzzled by this. Worse yet, I’m quickly losing respect for her. –Disturbed

The sense that productivity has become unproductive can trigger an emotional response called “low mood,” marked by fatigue, deep pessimism, feelings of worthlessness, changes in appetite and sleep, and a slowing of motivation (symptoms also seen in depression). Psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse believes that low mood evolved to stop us from wasting our energy by persisting in fruitless endeavors.

To understand why our psychology would be set up like this – to stick its foot out and trip us – it helps to recognize that our emotions are basically traffic directors for our behavior, designed to maximize our survival and reproductive success, not our happiness. Accordingly, Nesse explains that the “disengagement” from motivation that accompanies low mood serves a number of purposes: to immediately prevent further losses, to make us rethink what we’re doing, and to signal to others that we need care.

The psychiatric bible of mental disorders, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, doesn’t bother to differentiate between the “adaptive” low mood Nesse is talking about and depression caused by malfunctioning brain chemistry. The DSM’s diagnosis of depression just involves taking count: Five or more almost daily symptoms (fatigue, pessimism, etc.) lasting for more than two weeks? Congratulations! You’re depressed. But what’s important to note from Nesse’s work is that depression isn’t necessarily a sign of brain dysfunction. And there’s a lot of hope in this, because if your symptoms have an environmental reason, maybe you can see your way to an environmental remedy.

Physical action is another emotion-changer – even if you have to force it. For example, research by psychologist James Laird finds that busting out smiles actually makes people happier. Research by biopsychologist Timothy Puetz finds that acting energized – like by regularly doing 20 moderately paced minutes on an exercise bike – actually energizes.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which uses reason to help people dig out of their emotional problems, could also be helpful. However, because your girlfriend’s idea of productivity now seems to involve simply sitting in the dark rather than lying in the dark, you might take on the therapeutic preliminaries: Find the therapist; make the appointment; and be there to drive her at the appointed time. However, you should also be prepared for her to refuse to get in the car when that time comes. That said, your being something of a pushy jerk for the woman you love will probably mean a lot.

©2016, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


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