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Has anyone every truly lost their sense of happiness or maybe love? I realize a negative condition like depression can make it seem like it is only possible for one to be sad. Is it possible for depressed people to evoke the emotion of happiness within themselves?

For example, can depressed people recall the feeling of happiness by remembering a time when they were happy or thinking of something they enjoy?

My understanding is that if happiness can be evoked even once then they haven't lost the sense of it and maybe they can be trained to evoke it whenever by focusing on what is positive instead of what is negative. Much harder than it sounds I realize, you have to first believe you CAN be happy but I guess I am just asking if anyone lost happiness permanently, maybe through brain damage, or was born without it.

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  • $\begingroup$ One of your questions really struck me: 'can depressed people recall the feeling of happiness...?' What does it mean to recall the feeling of happines? Surely to recall a feeling, you have to experience a feeling, right? This puzzles me- when it comes to seeing, we can visualise something in our mind's eye, however when t comes to feelings, or even smells, I cannot recall them as I can am image. With a smell, it is almost as if I recall the hints of the smell (sourness, for example) but not the smell itself. It seems to be similar with feelings... $\endgroup$ – Meep Jun 24 '15 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure about this either Joanna. Emotions can also be similar to feelings and I can seem to recall what it felt like to be happy or sad but not with the same strength as the original time. $\endgroup$ – Anoop Alex Jun 25 '15 at 1:34
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Depression is characterized by emotion dysregulation (e.g., Joormann & Vanderlind, 2014). This means that depressed patients have difficulties decreasing (downregulating) their negative affect and increasing (upregulating) their positive affect. This may be a consequence of cognitive distortions and deficits (Joormann & Vanderlind, 2014) as well as maladaptive emotion goals (e.g., the goal to increase/maintain negative affect; Millgram, Joormann, Huppert, & Tamir, 2015).

Many kinds of therapies seek to improve (directly or indirectly) the ways depressed patients regulate their emotions, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (Beck, 2011) and cognitive bias modification (Hallion & Ruscio, 2011), which includes memory therapeutics (e.g., aiding recall of positive autobiographical memories or reducing the impact of negative memories; Dalgleish & Werner-Seidler, 2014) and attention training (e.g., Papageorgiou & Wells, 2000).

These therapies are effective/efficacious at reducing the cognitive deficits associated with depression and thus facilitate more adaptive emotion regulation (i.e., less rumination, more positive reappraisal, more self-distancing). This leads to improved mood (decreased negative affect, increased positive affect; e.g., Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010).

So, yes, depressed patients can experience happiness via establishment of more adaptive emotion regulation skills. Moreover, positive affect is associated with activation of many different brain regions (Lindquist et al., 2015), which makes it unlikely that depressed patients have a total inability to experience happiness.

Interestingly, positive memory recall may not be effective for depressed patients as a short-term mood repair strategy. In fact, it may make them feel even worse (Joormann, Siemer, & Gotlib, 2007). Depressed patients may not find positive memories to be intrinsically rewarding, perhaps due to processing disfluency and/or dysfunctional reward circuitry (Chen, Takahashi, & Yang, 2015).

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For "permanent" loss of experience of happiness or pleasure, check out the term Anhedonia

From my own understanding, a brain can shift between different states of mind. Depression is just one such state. I have a more detailed answer about states of mind here, but the important point is that states of mind color perception of past, present and future. Your life situation, relationships, bank account and job all stay the same, happiness just provides a different outlook on them.

Thinking happy thoughts in a depressed state would not be enough to change the state and experience happiness. There are two ways I know of that can bring back the experience of joy, content or happiness while feeling depressed:

  • Having a prolonged (30 min) conversation about topics that are meaningful to you with a receptive audience (friend, therapist, or writing in a diary). The focus is on explaining the concepts to another person.
  • Pharmacologically disrupting the state through the use of medications (long term) or drugs (short term)
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