Nebulous Goals Set By Depressed People Fuel Illness

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Depression is one of the most common forms of mental illness in the U.S. and across large sections of the world. Among its many symptoms, the disorder can trigger a loss of the normal ability to feel motivated or pursue pleasurable or fulfilling activities. According to the results of a new study released in July 2013 by researchers from the University of Liverpool, loss of motivation and interest in depressed people stems in part from the types of goals they typically pursue. While people unaffected by depression tend to form clear, reachable goals, depressed people tend to form more nebulous, unattainable goals.

Background Information

Mental health professionals refer to the loss of motivation and interest as a symptom called anhedonia. While not all people with depression develop this symptom, it typically appears in affected individuals in a relatively prominent form. Current evidence indicates that anhedonia is not caused by a literal inability to experience pleasurable or motivating sensations inside the brain. Rather, it stems from an inability to sustain those sensations long enough to maintain the drive needed to pursue interesting or pleasurable activities in everyday life. Other common symptoms interact with anhedonia and help create the overall shape of depressive illness, including such things as a decline in normal energy levels, a generally “down” mood, a restless or irritable emotional state, and persistent feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness or a range of other psychologically destabilizing emotions. Forms of depressive illness include major depression (and variants of this condition such as seasonal affective disorder and postpartum depression), minor depression and dysthymic disorder.

Goal Setting Basics

Goal setting is the general term used to describe the process of making plans for the future and taking the intermediate steps necessary to fulfill those plans. Inevitably, the average person successfully completes some goals and fails to complete others. Generally speaking, people have an easier time fulfilling their goals when they follow certain basic principles. These principles include making goals that are realistic to the individual and situation, believing in one’s established goals, taking personal responsibility for the pursuit of one’s goals, setting specific criteria for judging progress toward a goal, and accepting the need to adjust certain aspects of a goal.

Goal Setting and Depression

In the study released by the University of Liverpool, a team of researchers examined the ways in which people affected by depression set goals. They did this by asking a group of depressed individuals to describe their short-term, intermediate and long-term goals, and then comparing the answers they received to the answers provided for the same questions by a group of people unaffected by depression. After gathering answers from both groups of study participants, the researchers classified all of the replies according to their degree of specificity (in other words, by the amount of concrete detail they contained).

The authors of the study concluded that both depressed people and people unaffected by depression have a roughly equal number of goals planned for their futures. However, while people free from depression generally set fairly specific goals, depressed people generally set much more nebulous goals that lack specific or concrete detail. In addition, when asked to set the criteria used to judge successful completion of a goal, people affected by depression have a much greater tendency to use nebulous criteria that make it difficult to distinguish success from failure.


The unusual lack of specificity in goal setting mirrors a larger tendency among depressed individuals to make broad generalizations about various aspects of life. For instance, one of the key reinforcing factors in depressed emotional states is an overgeneralization of the scope of negative, debilitating emotions such as hopelessness, sadness. or helplessness. The authors of the University of Liverpool study explain that abstract goal setting can also reinforce (or even worsen) the effects of a depressive illness by decreasing the likelihood of completing a given goal or group of goals, and thereby reducing the individual’s level of interest and personal motivation.

The study’s authors believe that their findings are unique in describing the effects of overgeneralization on goal-setting behaviors in depressed people. They also believe that their findings can help support the development of new treatment techniques that teach people who suffer from depression how to set more concrete goals and increase their motivation for personal accomplishment.


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