Down in the Dumps of Melancholy

From Dostoevsky’s patricides to Isaac Babel’s twist endings that usually involve a brutally murdered Polish villager, the Russian canon is famous for being “depressing.” This stereotype — coupled with beliefs about an abundance of vodka, everlasting winters and Vladimir Putin — paint the country as a place where gloominess is all but inevitable. In Soviet Russia, depression has you, and so on.

The stereotype isn’t wholly an example of Americans being culturally foolish either: In a University of Michigan paper, researchers Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross, called Russia a “clinically masochistic” culture because of evidence that Russians tend to ruminate, or think obsessively, about negative things far more than Americans and other western Europeans. Since we take it for granted that fixating on downsides doesn’t lead to a cheerful outlook, it’s no surprise that psychologists pinpoint rumination as a cause of depression.

But Grossmann and Kross went one step farther and tried to answer a simple question: Does all this brooding actually make Russians more depressed? Short answer: No. The long answer has interesting insights into the nature of self-reflection.

In their experiment, the researchers first asked Russian and American participants to read stories about a series of characters and then pick the one with whom they most identified. Confirming the stereotype, Russians overwhelmingly identified with the character who thought the most about her problems. But the researchers also found that these ultra-analytical Russians weren’t necessarily more depressed, due to basic differences in how the two ruminated.

When Americans dwell on unpleasant situations, we usually do so from a first-person perspective, reliving it, and experiencing all the unpleasant emotions we already felt the first time. Russians ruminate on unpleasant situations more often but do so from a more detached perspective. Their style of brooding is more like watching a film reel, analyzing things as if that happened to someone else and dissecting the situation. This type of emotional detachment, or self-distance, helped the Russian participants learn more from their ruminations, feel fewer negative emotions and avoid blaming someone else for the situation.

Of course, this research doesn’t help much when one is agonizing over murdering an old woman for the lulz, but for the rest of us who haven’t committed murder, the take away is oddly comforting: It’s not necessarily thinking about bad things that will get you down, it’s thinking about them from an overly self-involved perspective.