By Amy Alkon
Q: 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
A: Unfortunately, drooling while napping is not considered a form of multitasking.
It’s understandable that you’re losing respect for your girlfriend, given her newfound leadership in the Occupy the Couch movement. Now, maybe she is just lazy, or maybe, like dieters who decide to eat like walruses over the holidays, she’s decided to take some lazy time. However, because you describe her as pretty industrious when she’s working, it’s possible that her descent into human slipcoverhood comes out of how frustratingly scarce jobs are in certain professions. When you’re hardworking and good at your job, the answer to, “Where do you see yourself a year from now?” isn’t supposed to be, “On a corner with a cardboard sign, begging for change.”
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, like waiting around for our bison dinner to grab a drink at a watering hole that’s run dry. (Pointless persistence was especially likely to be fatal a million or so years before the creation of 7-Elevens and fast-food drive-thrus.)
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. (Ticket to Hugsville, please.)
The psychiatric bible of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, doesn’t bother to differentiate between the “adaptive” low mood that Nesse is talking about and depression caused by malfunctioning brain chemistry. The manual’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.
If your girlfriend is experiencing low mood, the last thing that she needs is the sense that her job loss will soon have the loss of her boo to keep it company. Let her know that you love her and are there for her, and then tell her about Nesse’s thinking on low mood, which might help her scavenge enough hope to start thinking outside the, uh, bed.
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, with the ensuing raised heart rate and various surging biochemicals basically standing in for force-feeding a 5-hour ENERGY drink to that ugly low mood.
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. It just might be the push she needs to start living through FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—instead of fear of missing out on an afternoon of making paisley patterns on her face with the couch.