The Sexiness of Sadness: Evolved and Socialized Reasons We Might Be Attracted to Depression

Monday, November 17, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Many in the therapy biz have emotional reactions to the people they treat. When left in a room with a sociopath, physical responses such as fight or flight are common. Being with anxious people may make us tense based on the evolutionarily relevant assumption that if you're nervous, I probably should be too.

"Where's the tiger, yo?"

But depression triggers therapists and others alike to respond in unexpected ways. Instead of nervousness, many feel attached or even more motivated to help, what Dr. Peter Kramer calls "being charmed" in Against Depression1

This "charming" effect may be an offshoot of a drive to provide care to the overwhelmed, or at least to save the depressed from attack in a vulnerable state. But it is more than a desire to assist. This same system may make moodiness and vulnerability sexually attractive to a higher percentage of the population than you might think.

Now this is not to argue that debilitating depression is hot, but rather that we are primed to find the individuals with traits that encompass depression as attractive on varying levels. Bad boys aren't just sexy because we like the smell of leather. It is the deep mystery of James Dean's moodiness, the passion of Edward Cullen, the irritability, inherent sadness and "I just don't give a fuck" attitude that we see in Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

Then there's Brad Pitt in The Legends of the Fall who suffered from long-term depressive symptoms secondary to posttraumatic stress disorder. And his sadness, guilt, self-cutting, withdrawal, substance abuse and panic attacks didn't stop most of us from wanting to tap that shit.   

In all of these cases, we imagine we will be the ones to break through those walls and ride off into the sunset. But, in each case, it is the very traits that make him attractive that make him depressed. 

Quick Overview: What are some of the symptoms of depression that we are referring to?

  • Depressed mood/sadness
  • Trouble with pleasure (anhedonia): "Oh, I can tell he doesn't care what people think about him. It makes me want him more…"
  • Lack of concern for consequences of actions: "Fight a man for your honor? Fucking A right I will!"
  • Strong reactions to losses, particularly with regard to relationships (Poor, Mr. Pitt.)
  • Lack of energy/tiredness 
  • Too little or too much sleep (like sparkly vampires watching you snooze, which is super creepy on so many levels)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in mental or physical processes (slowing or increasing)
  • Worthlessness/trouble accepting compliments: "Oh, he's so humble…"
  • Guilt 
  • Withdrawal or isolation (think the handsome loner or prince charming without a single friend)
  • (Check out What is Depression? Examining the Link Between the Physical and the Emotional for more on the symptoms of depression)

Many of our responses don’t make logical sense. For example, we refuse to acknowledge that a man who seems not to care really and truly might not give a flying fuck. Instead, we think he's deep. We don't see his lack of concern for consequences as self destructive; we think he's strong, a rebel.

What in the fresh hell makes that happen? Why would any of these things be attractive to us?

Sexual Selection: Why Is Depression Sexy?

There are a few theories here which may need consideration. 

The first is that at some time in our historical past, depressed individuals were attractive because—for whatever reason—they survived at higher rates. This may have been true because those with lowered self worth and other depressive symptoms would have been less likely to engage in physical conflict or other risky behaviors. Pessimism at their success may have also led to improved odds of living, therefore better chances that individuals who possessed that trait would be around to assist with children later.

Higher odds of being around to care for kids =  extra sexy.

The depressed may also have lived longer if they took fewer resources to keep alive in times of famine. According to Kramer in Against Depression, with the lower levels of mobility, loss of appetite and the slowed metabolism seen in the depressed population, this may well have some merit1. If, over time, individuals who showed depressive traits had children who survived at higher rates, it would be expected that we would evolve a capacity to find it attractive. In times of scarcity, attraction to someone who is eating--and moving--less would make biological sense from a resource standpoint. 

"Hey,'re only ordering salad? Damn, you sexy."

The Cost of Caring

We might also be attracted to depressive traits if we see them as a sign that someone has the ability to attach securely to their partners or their children. If someone goes into a depression at the loss of a relationship, this may signal their potential to be a committed partner and a good, attached parent.

"Better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all...because then you can use that shit to score a mate."

Women in particular, due to the historical importance of relationships for survival, tend to have a larger group that they care deeply about. While this is not a universal truth, it is a statistically relevant one that gives women increased opportunities for loss. This may be one reason, as Kramer hypothesizes, that women have a higher likelihood of an initial depressive episode than their male counterparts1

In either sex, this "Cost of Caring Hypothesis" may mean that a part of us evolved to see strong reactions to loss as attractive.  The more depression someone has at a loss, the better equipped they are for attachment in the first place.

"Your aunt just died? On a scale of one to ten, how sad are you? Nine? Come on over here, boy."

But even without evolutionary process, we may be groomed for attraction to depression anyway. Society has the inherent ability to glorify certain overzealous traits (discussed more here in When Does Personality Become Mental Illness?) while still pushing the depressive as sexy, romantic or fundamentally “worthy”. No wonder we’re confused.    

History of Embracing Depressive Traits

Religion, Deep Thinkers and Resilience

The glorification of depression can be seen as far back as we choose to look. 

Depressive traits--particularly guilt, worthlessness or helplessness-- have historically been embraced and encouraged as a form of penance or teaching tools. In the history of most (though not all) religions, nothing was sexier in a woman than her humility, her guilt and submission to a creator and to her husband, despite the fact that all of these traits are also depressive. 

Despite alterations in much major religious teaching, there are some ideas that persist currently and encourage slightly less enthusiastic temperaments, a throwback to a time when women were exchanged as property and constant guilt was part of a divine, humble life. This is not to say that religion is causing depression, mind you. More that the practice of certain religions led larger groups of people to see traits that are currently classified as depressive, as attractive in a devout mate.

But there are other cultural reasons as well, particularly when we begin to examine our attraction to certain traits in the context of creativity. While the mechanisms for enhanced creativity in those with depression is the topic of another post, our attraction to it remains consistent regardless of reason. 

Creativity: Poets, Artists, Writers and the Musicians Your Father Warned You About

Picture a brilliant painter. What do you see? Is he happy and excited to see you? Or did he throw you the fuck out of his studio because he needs to be alone to create? 

We are predisposed to be attracted to the forbidden, often referred to as the "ironic process model". But most of us didn't start dating guys who played guitar in a band just to piss our fathers off. As a society, we have come to see depression and artistry as intertwined entities, almost as if the moodiness makes us think they are smarter.

And sometimes they are. Particularly in cases of bipolar conditions and other disorders where people are referred to as "moody", the increases in monoamine transmission during lower levels of mania increase connections between different areas of the cortex, leading to new ideas, and increases in overall creativity before flipping back to depression. 

Even without the neurobiology, we only need to look at the history of brilliant writers of our time to see where some of this bias comes from. Edgar Allen Poe suffered from depressive episodes. Vincent Van Goh had an extensive history of mental illness that ended in suicide. Ernest Hemingway wrote his ass off while plagued with major depression. 

The list goes on…and on…and on.  

Most people seem to think that those with moody traits, those who suffer, have a greater depth of experience, and indeed, they may be more likely to seek creative alternatives to cope with painful emotions. We may be attracted to such traits because those with greater problem-solving capacities may have survived at higher rates in our ancestral past. 

More recently, we may have come to see this sadness as a sign of deeper meaning, the trademark of a person with a life that transcends superficiality. 

Let's be honest, if we wanted superficial bullshit, we can turn on Big Brother or MTV. Have we come to believe that depression builds character, that struggle and sadness lead to resilience? After all, the dim-witted blonde of stereotype is never battling a deep philosophical issue that might lead to the betterment of human kind, deep poetic license or great art. Her superficiality, her lack of depth and hapless optimism is what defines idiocy, shallowness. We may not know much, but we KNOW we don't want to be that.

And seriously, don't most people who think about the world--I mean REALLY think about it--get a little upset? Those among us who are the most depressed probably consider it more. Or maybe not. 

Maybe we simply see the resilience in the depressed artist: 

"He has suffered and he is still trying, therefore he is strong, therefore he will be strong in the future, therefore, he might make a good baby daddy, therefore, I should get him to bend me over this easel." 

Deductive reasoning at its finest. 

It might also be that our earliest memories and fairy tales often embrace depression as a central theme, both in the women we associate with and the men who love them.

Fairy Tale Depression

Most of our fairy tale princesses have some element of disorder beyond the characteristic ‘flinging oneself down to cry’ thing. Belle’s identification with and later adoration of the Beast is more aptly Stockholm Syndrome than love, a condition where the abducted begin to identify with, and even defend, their captors. The Little Mermaid's Ariel may have had some element of compulsive hoarding. 

But beyond these more overt traits is a near universal theme of depressive symptoms including—but not limited to—helplessness, hopelessness and low self worth.  In addition, each princess usually comes complete with the standard risk factors for depression development, first and foremost the loss of a parent, usually the mother. They also generally have histories that include abuse/trauma (think abduction or being made a slave by your stepsisters), isolation and vulnerability. They are so acutely sensitive to rejection that they are willing to do anything to keep a man they just met. 

This is not normal behavior. How strange we have been socialized to see it as endearing. 

Take Ariel, our motherless hoarding mermaid, a girl without a single mermaid friend. Her big dream in life is to be someone else, a person with an impossibly different body than her own.  And it just takes seeing Prince Charming before she is willing to risk her life to be with him. 

Fucking romantic.

Cinderella, too, was isolated from any and all social support, living with parental loss, childhood abuse and neglect. Rapunzel, locked away in a tower after being stolen from her parents, waits for her true love to rescue her. 

For some reason they all sing, though I suspect that is to soften the blow on the surrounding people. The depressed population often downplay the situation or deny it to others because they don’t see their pain as worth troubling others about. So they make you laugh. Maybe they occasionally hang out with misfit dwarfs in a coal mine. And some sing, maybe because it pleases them, but often because it pleases you. 

I won’t ruin every fairy tale ever written, but the theme is similar throughout: each woman believes that she needs a hero to save her from something. It would never occur to Rapunzel to cut her own hair, tie it to a bedpost and slide down that shit before her man showed up. She needs someone else to climb up, not only for salvation, but to fill an emotional void that she cannot. 

It's also a really great reason for all the fairy tales to end at the wedding. Because it ignores the next phase, when a stressor triggers an inevitable bout of depression. It skips Prince Charming realizing that he can't really save Cinderella from PTSD-induced nightmares, or Snow White from her postpartum depression complete with never-ending scary thoughts about her child resembling a pick-wielding dwarf.

You can’t go past the wedding, not with this level of disorder. Just ask Romeo and Juliet. Because nothing says love like mutual suicide. 

Shakespeare was no slouch in the realm of desirable disorder, but again, you can dissect those tales as well. Whoever produced it, we identify because we are built that way. The animated tales of our childhood just capitalized on it and took it to a whole new level of submersion where little girls not only identified with those traits, they began to dream of being the hopeless, helpless, depressed damsel complete with self-sacrificing knight to save her from herself. All they needed was the man. 

But what of the heroes themselves? Where is the line between self-sacrificing valor and self-destruction?

Heroism Versus A Man Who Doesn't Care About Himself

Many of the world’s great heroes were subtly or obviously depressed. Some, like author and hunter Ernest Hemmingway (mentioned above) went on to commit suicide after serving multiple tours of duty and proving himself as a war hero. The line between heroism and not caring about consequences is hard to see from the outside. 

So when does self-sacrifice make sense?

Aside from kin selection pressures (or saving relatives), in the heat of the moment a person may step in to save another from being hit by a car or stabbed in a parking lot. However, the forethought and planning required to slay a dragon means that one must consider their own personhood. In other words, a man on horseback coming to our rescue isn't necessarily the man we should logically want. 

Crazy, yes? Hear me out. 

What type of a man sacrifices himself for the sake of helping a lone woman in a tower? One who values himself, or one who doesn't give a shit about his life? 

I'm certainly not accusing the armed forces or firefighters of being cowardly or depressed; they train to work in specific conditions, taking all precautions to avoid death. This is about a single man without backup deciding against insurmountable odds to slay a mother fucking dragon for someone he has never met. And not just in the heat of the moment, where he was faced with someone being harmed; it’s always days after the fact with full knowledge that the woman isn’t in immediate danger. He doesn't even look for a posse, for fuck's sake. Mr. Charming’s mortality is generally irrelevant, at least to him.

So, is it selfless valor or a thinly veiled suicide attempt? It's a crapshoot, but either way, we are taught to be attracted to a man who would die for us without a second thought. We all want to be that important.

Depression embodies our contemporary view of romance. We relate to depression almost as a person himself. He is part of the human condition, one that represents struggle, learning, and depth of character. He is a tortured soul, disturbed to the point of self harm after the loss of a woman, showing us a passion that could be ours if we embrace it. 

Depression is our Dark Knight. It is the isolated, brooding, terrible-at-relationships nature of Superman and Spiderman. Depression is our moody poet or a lonely vampire who would rather worship us than socialize with anyone else. Depression is the partner who would give his life for our happiness, who would rather die than live without us, who will conquer our dragons for us if we simply tell him where they are. 

Depression is that which we are bred to seek. He is Romeo. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Repressed: An Ash Park Novel (#3)
Not all monsters wear masks.