A common symptom of depression is the absence of purpose and meaning in life. Finding or regaining a feeling of connection to a ‘purpose on this earth’ (as Marty put it) was important to a number of the people we interviewed. In particular, people spoke about how a sense of purpose gives meaning to their life, motivates them to plan for the long-term, and helps them align their actions with what they most value.
This section explores how people described finding an overarching purpose in life, and how that sense of purpose then guides their decisions and their actions. (To learn about how people developed short-term strategies to cope with depression, see ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life‘.)
Finding purpose and meaning in life – perhaps even or especially in suffering — is widely recognized as an antidote to feeling worthless or depressed*. For the young adults we interviewed, the search for meaning was highly individual. Some people found meaning by adopting an existing philosophy, and others developed their own philosophy and purpose in life.
Myra captured a sentiment common across these approaches. ‘I don’t think that we’re here to just to take in all the pleasures and pass on to the next life or back into the dirt,’ she said. Rather, ‘We all serve a purpose to help others.’
Tapping into what people perceived as a ‘universal truth’ provided them with a structure and a deep sense of being connected to a ‘greater purpose.’ (See also ‘Depression and spirituality‘.)
Suffering from depression and other trauma helped Sierra Rose realize that she is connected to a universal purpose to help others.
Marty finds that tapping into a sense of purpose in this Earth provides him with a structured belief system to lift him out of his patterns of depression.
Brendan talks about how, despite his suffering, his purpose to make the world a better place keeps him going.
In reflecting on his recent episode with severe depression, Colin finds purpose in life by developing his own philosophy and in making decisions to improve his life.
Sam says compassion, contribution, and connection to others helps him organize his thoughts about what it means to be a valuable human being.
Having a sense of purpose in life motivated a number of people to develop their professional talents. This practical as well as philosophical focus served, in many cases, to counterbalance their depression. For some people, setting a goal for a career motivates them to do what is necessary to keep mental health issues under control. For instance, Mara started taking an antidepressant, because as she said, ‘It was important to me that I be able to maintain this image of myself as an ambitious, professional, hard-working person.’
A caring mentor encouraged some people to develop their talents and their self-discipline to build a career that matters to them and creates a sense of mastery. As Sophie and Julia describe, this was a significant turning point in their journey to heal their depression. (See also ‘Depression and healing‘ and ‘Depression and work.’)
Sophie’s mentor encouraged her to become an accomplished clothing designer, which eventually lifted her out of her depression.
When Julia failed her first psychology exam, her professor gave her a second chance. This motivated Julia to give herself a second chance too.
Teri says that entering the helping professions, being there to help others, gave meaning to her life.
Leanna describes how working schizophrenic patients gave her a sense of empathy and happiness.
Setting an intention to help or care for others, and then following through on this desire, was a powerful way to counter depression. As Sierra Rose put it, ‘all I hope to do with my life, with what suffering from depression and everything else has taught me, is to help other people [and] teach other people.’
A few people talked about helping others by addressing social ills. For instance, Brendan intends to use his music to ‘serve as a platform for some progressive politics.’ To call out those ‘who abuse their power in order to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Wall Street bankers collapsing the world economy and then getting away with it or congressmen rezoning their districts so that minorities don’t have voice.’ This sense of purpose helps Brendan to productively channel his long-standing anger issues. (See also, ‘Depression and abuse‘.)
Most people, however, identified their purpose as helping people on a personal level. Some young adults do this as a way of counterbalancing or compensating for negative behaviors associated with their depression. As Shayne says, ‘I try really hard to be a better person than I am when I’m sad or upset or angry, when my mental illness has more power than I do, so to speak. So, I, you know, I do lots of things. I volunteer, I teach, I do research.'
Myra describes how her commitment to making up for the stress she had put her mother through, keeps her away from her old self-destructive behaviors.
Taking care of her family gave Crystal motivation to keep going even in really bad times.
Devin says being neglected in his early life made him able to feel other people’s emotions, and now he uses that ability to be helpful.
Kate says that depression drives her creative energy, enriches her understanding and capacity to help others, which completes, as she describes, a self-feeding cycle that helps her feel more valuable.
Pete says his experience with depression makes him want to help others going through similar experiences.
*Killam, Kasley. ‘How to Find Meaning in Suffering’ Useful insights from research on ‘post-traumatic growth’. Scientific American. 15 December 2015. Web. 7 February 2016.
*1 Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.
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