A study by two University of Notre Dame professors suggests that spending time around someone who’s depressed can be more than just a drag; it could end up saddling you with the same condition.
The study, which followed more than 200 first-year students who’d been randomly assigned, in pairs, as housing partners, found that individuals paired with roommates whose depression stemmed from their “cognitive vulnerability” to stressful situations were more likely to develop the same symptoms than those who were paired with emotionally healthy students.
By contrast, some depressed students paired with roommates who handled the stresses of first-year college life well were likely to shake off many of their own negative symptoms.
The key factor, the study indicates, centers upon the type of a depression a person has. In the case of cognitive vulnerability depression, individuals don’t handle life changes well and view their circumstances as unchangeable or the product of personal failings.
In simple terms, negative thinking leads to cognitive vulnerability depression. The common-sense corollary is that hanging out with someone who’s a negative thinker increases the chance that you’ll become a negative thinker, too — unless you’re such a positive thinker that your influence starts to rub off on that depressed person you’re spending so much time around.
In the study, it took about six months for someone to go from happy to depressed, once they’d lived with a roommate already struggling with cognitive vulnerability depression. But signs of “contagion” were already evident after sharing living quarters for only three months.
“The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researchers’ initial hypothesis,” the study states.
“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context,” wrote Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames, who co-authored the study. “This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.”
In other words, a pessimist can think himself into a state of depression; but with changes in both his surroundings and his view of how to solve problems, he can think and act his way back out of it.
“Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual’s social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention,” the study says. “Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy.”