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.
Finding that larger purpose may not be enough either, but many stories of recovery – including those of Donna, Tony Giordano and I on this blog – describe it as a critical step.
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?
Image by Grzegorz Chorus at Flickr
I definitely feel that finding my purpose helped me get out of depression and eventually, also helped me with my social anxiety too.
My depression came on because I graduated as a part 1 architect in May 2008. The worst economic recession since modern times. I then tried to retrain as a teacher where I experienced workplace bullying. This led to a major breakdown. Eventually, I sought help from my GP and they gave me citalopram and a waiting list of 6 months for any therapy, even though I was deemed at high risk of suicide.
Anyway, I came through my experience because once the citalopram had taken hold I was able to start training myself in web design and Spanish, and FINALLY found a job as a web designer but…200 miles away in London. So it was a challenge in terms of my social anxiety, but all in all, finding purpose, and a job, really helped me overcome my depression.
Thanks for sharing your post.
Dr. Wayne says
The people who do not admit that they are suffering from depression are the vulnerable. They are the one who needed help but how if they refuse to connect with the reality. They intend to isolate themselves and say to say end-up into suicidal act. Be connected with your family and friends. Never ignore the symptoms. Thank you John for wonderful thoughts that you shared in your post. Great reads! Many enlighten up to find purpose on their lives.
I often hear/read this advice on dealing with depression: help others. The homeless, disabled, poor, etc. While fundamentally I agree that finding a greater purpose in life beyond your personal needs and desires gives us a feeling of connectedness and thus purpose, it is the definition of “help” that is tricky: both from the receiving and from the giving end it needs to make sense and often (especially from the giving end) it doesn’t. It is trendy to state that getting involved in charity is good for your character, as it portrays one as humble and giving and who doesn’t want to be perceived as such. But is it really about appreances or do we want to cure our depression? Will it cure my depression if I show others that I am a charitable person, while in reality the voluntary help to the homeless is not something I enjoy doing at all or do well? Lucky are those who find just as much purpose in handing out food to homeless, as in teaching problem children, caring to disabled or elderly, etc., but I don’t fall in the one category while I may in the other, I know from experience. We are all different and we have different gifts to help others, it only makes sense to find ways to help others in those that we are good at, rather than randomly helping without real talent for it. There are examples where volunteers at natural disasters get traumatized themselves as they are not equipped to be dealing with the traumas they witness. They may even harm those in the process who require professional help. That’s not real help on either receiving or giving end, still there are companies expecting their staff to volunteer in disaster scenarios and not participating may even lead to public shame: hence the overrated trendy image of volunteer work.
If it is our purpose to do something meaningful, it means we have to believe that the help we actually offer makes sense for the receiving end, but also that it is aligned with our abilities and belief system. For example, if I intend to teach children, it has to be my belief that on the one hand the knowledge they acquire through me actually puts them on a better path in life and on the other hand I need to have the suitable skills to educate them, but I also need to be a person who LIKES educating others. If I fundamentally do not like educating others (for lack of patience, not feeling capable, etc.), I will not see sense in teaching others, as I will not find purpose for myself in life through the act of teaching: it would feel as if I try to lead someone else’s life, who is not me. In short, if we engage in activities that are unlike us, we become even more detached from our inner being and feel even less connected to our environment and the universe and in general feel even less sense in existing. Not a path out of depression.
So the prerequisite is knowing ourselves well enough: what it is that we like to do, what it is that we want to pass on or help our environment with. A selfless act in and by itself may be of support to our environment, but will not necessarily give us purpose. That’s the Catch22 of depression: selfless acts only make sense if we first get to know our true selves. But how does one get motivated while being depressed to get to know oneself, what motivates one to do that, not seeing purpose in anything?.. I don’t see how getting involved in charity for example would pull me out of this trap.
My suggestion would much rather be the other way around: engaging in preferred or random activities in which we engage with our environment and find where our mojo lies, without the express purpose of helping others initially. Perhaps I feel at home playing an instrument and that will motivate me to perform in front of an audience and the joy I bring them gives me purpose, motivating me to pick it up as a hobby and find purpose in performing. Or perhaps I like to read a lot of books and discuss my findings with friends, colleagues, family and the satisfaction I derive from informing/teaching them gives me purpose, this in turn can lead to me starting to teach on matters that interest me. Or sharing my professional experiences on open platforms and in case interest arises, find ways to transfer knowledge, which will give me a feeling of purpose.
Whichever way, the activities we engage in from our personal interest can give purpose to our abilities, thus motivating us to engage in passing on our passion to the activity, the knowledge we gain or any other way in which we actually HELP others. That is real help. I do not believe however that it works the other way around, by starting with the need of others and trying to find sense in fulfilling those needs. It will only drive us away even further from ourselves and make us feel even more inadequate if we don’t find joy in these generally accepted selfless acts.
Peka that makes sense Thankyou
So spot on. I agree with you 100 %
Thanks so much for making this point! It matches my experience exactly, and explains why volunteering at soup kitchens never appealed to me as a way out of depression. It just felt like more painful interactions with people, which is what usually drives me into depressive episodes to begin with. It’s much more effective when I allow myself time and space to delve into nature photography and photo editing, because it reinvigorates me and I derive a sense of safety and pleasure from communing with the natural world, my camera, and my computer. Then I find a way to share the uplifting photos I create with others, to brighten their moods as well. A purposeful retreat into myself (and the woods!) Sometimes I even end up teaching a short course on nature photography at my local community college, but it’s really just me sharing my own work and techniques with others. And it keeps me more genuinely connected than would a stressful day serving people in ways for which I’m not emotionally equipped.
serrurier viry chatillon says
Great article. Abraham Lincoln probably is the most well known example of someone who transcended his depression by finding an overarching purpose.
serrurier viry chatillon says
I agree that most therapy and medication can help stabilize you and limit the impact of depression, but it takes a lot more to find your life again. Sometimes, it not so much recovering life as entering it more fully for the first time. Purpose and meaning are essential – “much more free” is a good way to put it.