I’ve recently read a noteworthy article on PLOS One. It’s by Joanne M. Dickson and Nicholas J. Moberly, and it’s called Reduced Specificity of Personal Goals and Explanations for Goal Attainment in Major Depression. It’s a very interesting and detailed paper.
The authors, who work at the University of Liverpool and the University of Exeter respectively, asked a group of depressed people and another group of people who were not depressed to list their goals.
They found that the depressed individuals generated less specific goals, as compared to the controls.
Goals were rated as specific if they “…described an explicit aim or target feature and included at least one of the following specific aspects: time, place, or people…” Goals were rated as general if they “…referred to a global or abstract aspiration rather than a specific target feature or unique experience (e.g., ‘to be happy’).”
The authors draw the following conclusions:
1. Reduced specificity of goals is likely to undermine motivation
2. “…an inflexibly abstract construal of personal goals may underlie depression.”
In other words, not having specific goals leads to depression. This is an important finding and is in accord with common sense. Feelings of failure are inherently depressing, while feelings of success have the opposite effect. If a person has a long history of failures, large and small, for whatever reason, it’s easy to become generally pessimistic about one’s own abilities, and to avoid committing oneself to specific targets. Setting very general goals is actually a way of not setting goals at all. If my goal for tomorrow, for instance, is to “be happy,” then this doesn’t actually commit me to any specific course of action. Therefore, I will not experience failure. But, by the same token, I will not experience success either. On the other hand, if my goal is to mow the yard, or write a post, or change the oil in the car, or something of that sort, then the experience of success (and the good feeling it brings) is within my grasp.
DSM, on the other hand, conceptualizes reduced motivation as a symptom of depression. In other words, the “illness” of depression causes people to be unmotivated. In my view, it is the reduced motivation that causes the depression, at least in some cases. And the reduced motivation in turn stems from a persistent sense of failure. I think this way of looking at the matter is consistent with the findings of the Dickson/Moberly study.
In other words, an individual does not avoid specific goals because he’s depressed. Rather, he’s depressed because he avoids specific goals (and thereby deprives himself of the opportunity to experience feelings of success).
One of the great needs in the mental health system is to help people acquire the skills and habits that are needed to experience success. The kinds of skills I’m talking about are:
- the skill of seeing problems as solvable, rather than as crushing or as illnesses
- the skill of breaking a big problem down into its components and tackling them one at a time
- the skill of apologizing when one is in the wrong
- the skill of not apologizing when one is not in the wrong
- the skill of talking to people
- the skill of listening to people
- the skill of being able to relax
- the skill of seeing tasks to completion
- etc., etc., etc…
It occurs to me that some readers may look at this list and say: these are not really skills; they’re more like habits or attitudes or something like that. But in fact, each item on the list can be seen as a skill and can be acquired in essentially the same way as we acquire more concrete/practical skills like welding or drawing or sailing a boat.
I’m not suggesting that every client who comes to a mental health center would or should be coached in all these areas. For help to be effective, it has to be tailored to the needs of each individual client. What I am saying is that in a great many cases, the presenting problem can be conceptualized in terms of a skill deficit. And this seems to me to be a more valid and more helpful approach than seeing all clients’ problems as illnesses needing “medication.”