For years now, we've been led to believe that if we're falling behind in the joy department, we need only take a pill to feel calm and content. Yet, as many people are aware, antidepressants have been linked to significant side effects, including decreased sexual desire, weight gain, even an increased risk of suicide. Adding insult to injury, the drugs may not work as well as advertised; a 2008 study found that some can be no more effective than sugar pills. And according to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine
, many negative antidepressant study results have never been published. All in all, the prescription route to happiness may be less safe or effective than even doctors realize. To help cut through the confusion, I've identified four common misconceptions about happiness and depression. The truth just might surprise you. Myth #1: You Should Feel Happy All the Time
Sadness is not necessarily a sign of illness—it's a normal part of being human and can even be beneficial. For example, grief is a natural and healthy response that helps us adapt to major losses (of a loved one, a marriage, a job). In the face of stressful challenges, unhappiness can also serve as a beacon to spur positive change. In fact, depression likely evolved to help us cope with environments that are unsatisfying or even harmful. Low moods can signal that it's time to reevaluate what's happening in our lives. Myth #2: It's All About Serotonin
The most popular antidepressants are drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These work by increasing levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, which regulates mood. But newer research suggests that two areas of the brain called the hippocampus and Brodmann's area 25 can also influence how we experience despair. In addition, we know that depression is often closely linked to anxiety, against which stress-reducing practices like yoga or meditation can be powerful weapons. Myth #3: Pills Offer the Easiest Fix
About 15 percent of adults will experience major depression at some point in their lives, but many others suffer from mild to moderate forms of the disease. In those cases, research has shown that lifestyle interventions, such as therapy and exercise, can be as effective as medication. And they're free of one of the most common antidepressant side effects: weight gain. Myth #4: Depression Looks the Same on Everyone
Everyone experiences depression differently. Some patients eat too much and sleep too long, others find that they wake too early and have no appetite. The bottom line is that depression tends to magnify each sufferer's unique vulnerabilities, and as such, physicians often have trouble making a clear-cut diagnosis. If your doctor says that you're depressed and recommends antidepressants, consider seeing a mental health specialist for a second opinion. While untreated depression can be dangerous, taking medication when you don't need it can expose you to potentially harmful side effects.