Finding purpose in life that goes beyond your personal needs is often mentioned as a major step in overcoming depression. That’s a hard thing to imagine, though, when you’re in the middle of a severe relapse, and survival is the only goal in sight.
Yet, one of the hallmarks of depression is loss of motivation to do anything because you feel that your life is meaningless. You are meaningless, empty, worthless, bad, nothing but a burden. There’s no sense of future, no purpose to give you hope and help pull you back to an active life.
A sense of purpose goes along with building hope for the future, hope for recovering from depression and getting your life back. Even though you can’t focus on it when you’re struggling, hope and purpose are pretty basic for regaining a sense of who you are.
The Long-Term Threat of Relapse
Let’s say that medication, therapy, and whatever else you might do to get well, succeed in getting you back to a level of basic functionality. Is it enough to be able to sleep normally, feel more energetic, get your work done?
Many would say: You’re damn straight it is! They’d be thrilled to recover that much, to stop the symptoms, even partially. But if you look to the longer term, there is no medication and no form of psychotherapy that can prevent relapse. The high rate of relapse is becoming one of the major concerns about dealing with this illness.
Continuation of even minor symptoms greatly increases the likelihood that the illness will return. Something more is needed to help you keep depression at bay.
It’s not the first one. The first step is always to get control of the worst symptoms. After a while you need more to get to the next stage of living well, and a larger purpose may be part of the answer.
What is “Larger Meaning” All About?
Many of the most widely read books on recovering from depression emphasize the need to immerse yourself in activities that serve purposes beyond your own immediate needs. Richard O’Connor (Undoing Depression), Martin Seligman (Learned Optimism) and Michael Yapko (Breaking the Patterns of Depression) are among the influential psychologists who urge this as a necessary part of recovery.
Seligman says that the emphasis on individualism has replaced values that once focused on community, religion, family and a sense of social cohesion. The private good is more important for most than the public good, and as a consequence many of us seek fulfillment for ourselves as if we were independent of a greater social context.
He believes that an excess of individualism is a social contributor to the vast increase in depression. His solution is to explore a role in community life that serves others as well as yourself.
Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (my emphasis), goes even farther. He says that the fundamental drive in human existence is the need to find meaning in life in general, not just in your life. He calls this transcendent meaning, one that includes us in a greater whole.
Many find this greater meaning and purpose in God and spirituality or service to country or activism for social good. Frankl believes that a sense of purpose in your own life and self-fulfillment are the by-products of attempting to fulfill such a larger meaning.
Putting yourself into an activity that goes beyond you – like Donna’s volunteer work, Tony’s new career in teaching, my own writing on depression – can make the difference between getting by and feeling fully alive again.
Avoiding a Common Trap
There is a potential trap here. Depressive thinking can twist the most fulfilling activities into more excuses for self-condemnation. That can happen if you start imagining that you’re not worth anything unless you have this larger purpose and unless you’re really good at the work you do to fulfill it.
Your worth is not proportional to what you achieve in life. Part of depressive thinking and your inner critical voice keeps telling you that it is and that you always fall short. This is a classic example of all or nothing thinking, and it’s an ever-present danger for the battered self-esteem that is usually part of the illness.
Cognitive therapy techniques can be effective in keeping you out of this trap. They enable you to assess each setback in realistic terms rather than as indicators of your worth as a person.
How Do You Rediscover Purpose?
How to you find this larger purpose if you feel you don’t have one? Starting at any level is important, and support groups build on your own need for help. You may look at them only as a means to feel better yourself. But what you’re doing is sharing with others. You’re helping them as much as they are helping you.
I’ve rarely found it easy or comfortable to become active in face-to-face support groups because I get so anxious and self-conscious. It’s hard to be myself, harder still to trust others enough to open up. But I did find a place in one group that make a big difference in my life.
What drew me into it was the concerned and non-judgmental response I got the first time I spoke up about my problems with depression. As the group continued to meet over time, we would share the good feeling when one of us made progress and empathize with anyone having a tough time. We had all had similar experiences, and that helped us talk freely.
This may not sound like finding a meaning in life. That phrase suggests a great epiphany, a call from on high to some noble duty. But the reality is down to earth. You start at a level that feels good and supportive and see where you go from there.
Alcoholics Anonymous has always understood the power of one addict helping another. Both are supported and both are doing something that goes beyond their immediate personal need. That’s why service became one of the three pillars of recovery from AA’s earliest days.
I doubt you can live without a belief that there is some purpose to your life. It’s so common to hear people say that they want to make a difference. They want recognition, but they also want a sense that they’re doing something that will help others as well.
This may be the farthest thing from your mind when you’re absorbed in a depression nightmare. But I feel it’s one of those anchor points I need so that I can look ahead with a little hope.
Does this idea make sense in your work to get rid of depression? Have you been able to find a meaning and purpose that helps you keep your bearings at the worst moments?