Striving towards meaningful goals is good for your well-being; even just having goals by themselves are indicative of well-being. This is an established dogma of positive psychology, so how can one argue that goals may be at the root of the experience called depression.
A framework that aims to throw some light on this is the dual-process Tenacious Goal Pursuit (TGP) and Flexible Goal Adjustment (FGA) theory as proposed by Brandstatdter and colleagues.
As per this framework, we all strive towards goals, but only goals that are meaningful (say goals which align with our self-identity) and attainable (we have self-efficacy beliefs and can figure out strategies to achieve the goals) lead to well-being. A goal that we find meaningful and are highly committed to, but which becomes unattainable due to either external circumstances or our internal capacities, may lead to depression.The depression, and the helplessness and rumination that accompany it, may paradoxically have the function of decreasing our commitment to the goal and releasing ourselves from that unattainable goal.
And here is where the TGP and FGA theory comes to the rescue. In view of internal or external obstacles, that is when you are not able to make progress towards meaningful goals, you may either try to change the situations or your actions to ensure that they are congruent to the goals and would thus be demonstrating an adaptive process of assimilation (not to be confused with Piaget’s use of assimilation) also known as Tenacious Goal Pursuit (TGP), or you may adjust your goals and ambitions to reflect the situations / your capacities using the process of accommodation also known as Flexible Goal Adjustment (FGA).
Now, lets backtrack a little and reflect on the many routes to happiness: some say its all in your head- that you just need to change your mindset/ perception of events and you can be happier; others say that happiness is dependent on your situations and the actions that you take- you can and should cultivate happiness by activities and by changing your circumstances. Like all debates, like Nature-Nurture, the answer probably lies in the interaction and in-between. Haidt has famously claimed that happiness lies in-between, and I concur.
Similarly, sadness or depression may lie in your flexibility and tenacity of goal pursuits – while showing rigidity to a goal and not giving up may lead to sadness and depression, giving up too early or not being tenacious when circumstances could have been changed, may also lead to regret and sadness.
Its important to note that changing circumstances/ TGP etc are active processes; meanwhile changing mindset/ FGA are relatively passive processes, in that they happen in the background and not so much consciously.
That brings me to my major thesis: Depression is a disorder characterized by inability to use the adaptive process of FGA optimally. To me, Depression is a disorder of Behavior related to the Passive polarity of the ABCD Behavioral dimension. When one has a goal, to which one is committed, but is no longer attainable (and this may include an irreparable loss like bereavement ) then most people will use Flexible Goal Adjustment to come out of that state. However, the people with depression may be less able to use FGA and may remain committed to unattainable goals.
One of the evidence that comes to mind is, and for this you have to refer to my previous post about personality disorders and emotions, that the passive pole of Behavior dimension in ABCD model is also associated with Dysthemic and borderline personalities and hypothesized to be associated with the Conscentiousness trait. Now, It does seem that there is some evidence that highly conscientious people who have high commitment to goals, also are more likely to get depressed following setbacks or adverse life events. This makes immense theoretical sense too.
One can also examine the Active pole of the Behavior dimension in ABCD model to gain equivalent insights. As I had mentioned in my last post, that is associated with personality disorders of Histroinic and Hypomanic personality disorders and likely associated with the trait Impulsive Sensation Seeking. Extending this joy/ happiness related dimension, all these are also likely to be associated with the active process of Tenacious Goal Pursuit; here it is instructive to note that a high score on Impulsive Sensation Seeking may prevent TGP from happening as the person may keep moving from one activity to the other; and extremes of this may lead to manic behavior. The high scores on Impulsive Sensation seeking leading to less TGP leading to full-blown mania, is similar in nature to high scores on Conscientiousness leading to less FGA leading to full-blown depression.
To me, this seems a novel and fruitful approach to think about and conceptualize depression- as an inability to give up goals that are no loner feasible. If we focus more on this aspect, perhaps we need to augment our talking therapies of CBT etc that focus on negative self-talk and also introduce safe spaces and experiences whereby people can indulge in Flexible Goal Adjustment and give up on goals that are no longer feasible and replace them with other more meaningful and attainable goals.
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