How to Find Purpose When You're Depressed

One of the most debilitating things about having depression is that it robs you of a sense of purpose. I’m the kind of person who needs to be working toward something at all times to feel fulfilled — yet my depression makes me feel aimless, like I’m wading through an endless swamp with no final destination.

Depression impacts our ability to make and stick with decisions, removes the sense of pleasure from activities we used to enjoy and challenges us to find our motivation to get out of bed, let alone work toward a goal. That’s why behavioral activation is a major part of depression recovery: scheduling pleasurable activities into your day helps you rediscover that sense of purpose again.

But what about purpose on a grander scale? No one talks about how depression makes us question our life or career choices, wondering if we can trust ourselves to know what’s best for us. Or, how depression affects our decisions, leading us to stay in unhealthy relationships or at a job we hate for far too long.

Depression presents the following question: how can you find and work toward the life of your dreams when you can barely summon the will to live? I firmly believe that discovering your life path and feeling like you are consciously working toward a life you love is an essential part of recovering from depression.

Although it probably feels far-fetched right now, I believe you CAN discover your purpose when life itself feels purposeless — and here’s how to do it.

Discover Your Greatest Strengths

When we feel depressed, we often lose sight of all the wonderful things about ourselves that other people love. That’s why recognizing your strengths can help bring meaning back into your life.

To discover your greatest strengths, you have a couple of options. Firstly, you can try taking a test like the High5 Strengths Test, which will give you a list of your top five greatest strengths based on your instinctual answers. Or, if you don’t have the attention span for a long quiz, try keeping a brag book filled with all the compliments you receive throughout the course of your days.

If you’re really stuck, try asking your therapist or a loved one for help discovering your greatest strengths. Depression distorts our worldview, so sometimes, all it takes for us to see ourselves more accurately is a little shift in our perspective!

Build Meaningful Activities into Your Day

I’ve talked a lot about behavioral activation on this blog before, but never the theory behind it — which is that behavior actually precedes motivation. While you might be waiting to feel “motivated” again before getting back to your daily activities, researchers have found that small actions actually motivate us to do more.

When you’re clinically depressed, it can feel challenging to fill your days with meaningful activities when literally nothing feels meaningful. In this case, it helps to look at a list of pleasurable activities (such as this one) and circle the ones you used to enjoy, way back before you began to feel this way.

Even if the last time you remember feeling true happiness was when you were a child, ask yourself: is there something you used to do as a kid that would bring you a tiny spark of joy now — for example, coloring in a coloring book or sucking on a popsicle until your lips turn purple?

Then, print out a behavioral activation schedule (such as this one) and start to fill it in with a handful of small actions you can take to bring meaning back to your days. You might be skeptical that doing any of these things would actually bring you pleasure — especially when pleasure feels like such a foreign concept — but often, all it takes to begin feeling better is to bite the frog and take that first step, even when you don’t quite feel like it.

If You Can’t Live for Yourself, Live for Others

From Oprah Winfrey to Jim Carrey, the history books are full of people who worked their way up from humble beginnings by turning their pain into passion. Oprah was abused; Carrey was homeless — yet both went on to become wildly successful. How, exactly, did they do that, despite facing tremendous odds?

So many people find their passion by discovering an outlet for their pain. Many people diagnosed with chronic illnesses find meaning by advocating for others with their disease (like me!). Others are able to turn their pain into beautiful art through drawing, painting, dancing or songwriting — and in turn, their art brings meaning to others who might be going through the same things.

When you’re in the midst of depression, it’s difficult to imagine this devastating disease ever having a positive effect on your life. But if you are able to turn your pain into passion, if you are able to turn your heartbreak into a means of connecting with or helping others, depression can actually become one of your greatest assets. It’s about working with, not against, your depression to create something meaningful and constructive.

If you want to turn the pain of depression into a meaningful life experience, volunteering with a mental health organization is a wonderful place to start. For example, signing up for the Buddy Project takes little effort, yet can save someone’s life if you’re able to build a real connection with them over social media. Or, get yourself a BuddyBox, which costs only 12 British Pounds a month and benefits The Blurt Foundation, an organization spreading awareness of depression in the UK.

Expand Your Social Network

Above all else, depression is a disease of isolation — which makes sense! After all, social connections lend meaning to our lives. Human beings are not meant to be islands, yet today’s virtual world can feel lonelier than ever. Nowadays, we can connect with hundreds of people online every day while still feeling like we have no true friends.

One of the things that helped me most during the worst of my depression, which I’ve talked about a lot on here, was attending an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). IOPs and other support groups encourage you to be social, open up to others and make new connections with people in the same boat as you. If you’re anything like me, this probably sounds freakin’ terrifying — but you’ll never reap the benefits if you never give it a chance!

Or, if you don’t feel motivated to leave the house, try apps like Meetup, Vina or Bumble BFF, which allow you to make social connections from the safety of your couch. While a lot of these apps can result in conversations that don’t go anywhere, I still think it’s better to make connections of any kind than to isolate yourself when you’re suffering from a depressive episode.

And, if all of this feels impossible, I encourage you to consider whether social anxiety could be contributing to your depression. If social situations give you panic attacks or unreasonable levels of anxiety, including physical symptoms (i.e. shaking; sweaty palms), you might consider seeing a therapist who can help treat you for social anxiety disorder.

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