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Q: I teach psychology, and I am trying to understand this article you wrote on depression. I totally agree that many people put "negative filters" on their world, and I am teaching a course in Positive Psychology right now based on Seligman's work on Learned Optimism supplemented by a book by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project. Yet, one can look and see people who have serious cycles of severe depression, and one can trace these back down the family tree, so to speak. These people often begin experiencing these cycles at ages 8 to 10. How can you say this is not a biological/genetic process in these people? Or am I misunderstanding you? Thanks.

— Patricia H., Madisonville, Tennessee

Dear Patricia,
I welcome the positive psychology model, in large part because it looks beyond antidepressants as a treatment. Or, to put it more starkly, it offers treatment instead of a pill to alleviate symptoms. My approach to depression doesn't contradict genetics. The latest research indicates that genes can adapt to behavior in a person's surroundings so that family traits (not just depression, but anger, domestic abuse and other predispositions) can be passed on from generation-to-generation, not by giving rise to new genes, but by shaping the genes a person already has. Two identical twins have the exact genome at birth, but by age 70, their genetic expression is totally different, depending on life experience.

In my article, I was trying to get at the life experiences that underlie depression in mild to moderate cases. Severe clinical depression is a serious malady whose causes are unknown. But even if depression comes out of a black box, with no causes that anyone can accurately cite, I think the habit of being depressed, along with the depressed response itself, can be treated. Thanks for allowing me this clarification.


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