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’.)
Up until very recently, I still had that mindset of, “I didn’t decide to be here so why should I be forced to live here.” I wasn’t suicidal I wasn’t thinking about killing myself, I was along for the ride but that thought process was still there. And finally I realized that no our purpose is to learn and to love each other, that is the sole reason we are here. And all I hope to do with my life, with what suffering from depression and everything else has taught me is help other people, is to teach other people and to learn as much about it as I can.
Age at diagnosis: 11
Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page
I enjoy the structure I enjoy all of that and being told what to do. I believe there’s a purpose in this Earth for me and if it has something to do with maybe me being on the opposite side, maybe helping other people that I went through, I don’t know, but to answer your question having structure like that takes me out of my own head and puts me into a deepened, greater being, a greater purpose to help myself and others instead of just pulling the covers over my head and saying this is it, this is all life has to offer.
Age at diagnosis: 11
Background: Marty lives with his girlfriend in temporary housing. He is currently looking for work and a good place to live in preparation for the birth of his first child. He is Caucasian.Click here to view Marty's profile page
By noting that “each individual constructs their own sense of purpose and meaning of life,” Colin expresses a well-accepted perspective that suffering is part of the human condition and opens the potential for personal transformation and growth. This growth entails making meaning of trauma and suffering, and choosing a healing or creative path instead of a destructive one*1. (See also ‘The positive sides of depression’ and ‘Depression and suicide’.)
“Yes, I was an abused child,” and, “Yes, I’m depressed but that is not going to stop me from being a bad ass.” Such as it were, you know, I want some– I’m so– even if there are certain days when it feels like I can’t lift myself up from my bed, I still have the sort of feeling that I want to wrestle life and the world into submission, into being exactly what I kind of envision it being. And I work very hard to make those sorts of things happen then, you know, that’s when I’m here.
Age at diagnosis: 15
Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.Click here to view Brendan's profile page
It really makes you sit back and create your own philosophies on things. Personally I think it’s really made me believe that I create my own purpose in life. That I, that nothing’s really dictating what’s going to happen to me, that I’ve made all of these decisions that, like you said before, I chose personally a lot of these things to do in my life that have bettered my life. Big decisions, and I think like you can really mold your own purpose in life which is, this has taught me a lot going through all of this is that you have the choices. You have the chance to make your own choices and really determine your future and that is just like as bad as it can get, I hope I have seen the worse it can get like it can get better.
Age at diagnosis: 18
Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.Click here to view Colin's profile page
Other people described integrating teachings they learned from their religious upbringing with their own sense of meaning and purpose in life.
I believe that each individual constructs their own sense of purpose and meaning of life, constructs their own system by which they judge themselves to be valuable or not valuable. I absolutely think that religious faith can be an appropriate and healthy and good and beneficial way in which someone can construct their view of the world and of themselves. I also think that it is possible for religious faith, like any framework of looking at the world, to be unhealthy or destructive or negative. In my personal experience, I was raised to value, loving God, and compassion for other people above anything else. And while that mixed in with the unhealthy behaviors and dynamics that I’ve learned from my family and from other families in the community which I was raised, those values manifested themselves early on in me as the sense of needing to sacrifice myself to an unhealthy [inaudible] for God and other people. And while I no longer believe in God or explicitly subscribe to the idea that I have to give myself beyond what is reasonable, compassion and empathy, forging connections and understandings with as many people as possible in as many degrees as possible to as deep level as possible is something that gives my life a great deal of meaning. And something that I find a great sense of comfort and in pursuing.
Age at diagnosis: 19
Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.Click here to view Sam's profile page
Aligning life purpose with career
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.’)
When I was really depressed, but a friend introduced me to a designer and then the designer took me on as an intern and she, it was a weekend thing. So every weekend my parents would drive me to her studio and I would be there for eight hours and I would intern for her for a bit like organize her studio. And then for the last four hours she would teach me how to sew and teach me how to make and then in the end at the end of that six-month period I had learned how to make a dress from sketch to the final product. So that was really exciting and that’s what really made me, that whole process of seeing something through to the end and it that helped a lot it helped me look forward to the next weekend and the next weekend and the next so that got me through the weeks through school. And after that I had something that I, a skill that I could take home basically and just make whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and that was what I would look forward to making something and seeing it through to the end so that became my focus instead of worrying about everything else that was going on.
Age at diagnosis: 14
Background: Sophie is a practicing fashion designer and a college senior studying fashion design. She lives with her parents and brother. She is Caucasian and of Mexican descent.Click here to view Sophie's profile page
So I went up to the professor and I started crying. And I told her I was just like, so embarrassed and I knew the material and I don’t know why I got this grade and I said this is my first class ever in college and I was just nervous and she sat with me and asked me all of the questions over again verbally and I got an A. And she took that score.
And that was so validating and I felt so much support from this person who didn’t even really know me and I thought, what an amazing profession. You know, to really just like have empathy for someone and to show them support and to not judge them. And from that point, I wanted to pursue Psychology. And it was still, it was still a really like difficult road and after that I was still not taking it as seriously as I could have. I’ve always done well in my Psychology classes but there were, I think one was like an art class or something like that, and I just didn’t take it seriously. And that was a class that I failed because I just, I didn’t even go. But then I went back to thinking about my Psychology class and how much that meant to me and then that’s what kind of created that shift is I didn’t want to be truant, I didn’t want to be that person. You know, like I wanted to be that person that gives people a second chance, so I gave myself a second chance.
Age at diagnosis: 16
Background: Julia is a family therapist. She is single and lives alone in an apartment with a cat and a dog. She takes medication and sees a therapist. She is Caucasian.Click here to view Julia's profile page
Like Julia, other young adults we interviewed also chose a career path in the helping professions.
If you don’t have a purpose, then, of course, why does anything matter and so that really just perpetuated that cycle of not caring but so now my purpose has more shifted to I’m in the helping profession, I’m able to help people especially people with depression. I have clients who the majority of them are depressed and to see those symptoms in someone are, you know, it just, it can really take you back sometimes if you, if you think about it too long. But I just feel for them so much and I just want to help and that’s, that’s my purpose. Not just with depression, but mental health in general, especially as the stigma is starting to go away. It’s more okay to ask for help like I should have and so just being there for other people to call on for help has been very meaningful.
Age at diagnosis: N/A
Background: Teri is a master’s student in family counseling who lives with her wife and a dog. She has had counseling, but not medication. She is Caucasian.Click here to view Teri's profile page
I mostly worked with schizophrenic patients and they, they would entertain me every day. They, they would, they’re special. I would try to remember I too have technically a mental disorder as well and respect them and I’m not going to you know, joke, you know, they’re stereotypical. They’re making up crazy stories and stuff. It was pretty entertaining, just dealing with them and I liked taking care of them, I loved cooking for them and just watching these like old people with schizophrenia eat just made me so happy.
Age at diagnosis: 15
Background: Leanna lives with her husband and many pets in an apartment complex in a suburb outside a large town in a rural area. She is Caucasian.Click here to view Leanna's profile page
Helping others gives life meaning
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.”
And another thing that’s helped, for me, is thinking of my mom actually. You know, she’s, she has especially had it hard since my dad passed from cancer 6 years ago. And just, I think of all the drama I put her through when I first moved out and then I really don’t want to put that through her again. Or, or I don’t really want to put her through that again. I mean, she’s already worried enough about me. I mean, she trusts that I’m stable and she trusts that my fiancé takes care of me and vice versa. But I don’t need her stressing like that again.
Age at diagnosis: 27
Background: Myra is a musician works as an aide to older adults. She lives with her fiancé. She is African American.Click here to view Myra's profile page
Some found a deep sense of meaning in dedicating themselves to helping others, even if it entails some sacrifice.
My family’s had to rely heavily on me to help them through a lot of scenarios and situations. And so you know what, part of what has helped me stay here, stay alive is the fact that the rock that I’ve put in my life to hold on to, well the goal that I’ve had to help keep me going through each day is you know, take care of my family. So that’s the main rock that I go through because otherwise, I mean I have to take care of my family and I also have work but I kind of put those two in the same bucket just because by doing you know my school work and my extra-curricular activities and everything I am indirectly helping you know my family you know get to a better place or helping be a role model for my siblings. So that has been the rock that I have put in place in my life and so when I think about suicide now I’m thinking you know, “If you do this you realize that you won’t be able to fulfill that role anymore. And so you’ll probably feel really bad for not being able to you know, uphold that duty again.”
Age at diagnosis: 15
Background: Crystal is an African American college student. She works campus jobs during the year and internships in the summers.Click here to view Crystal's profile page
I always had this ability I guess to be able to tell people’s emotions even when they weren’t showing anything on their face. And I guess that might be because I was so neglected of emotion from my mother for those 13 years or whatever but that actually helped me because I was actually able to help other people out and that’s what I’ve always cared most about you know helping others you know, even if that means sacrificing my own help that is needed. I’ve always just wanted to help other people and from what I figured out was that if I could be around other people who had these emotions that needed help I would gain them so much so that it has still continued now. When I’m in crowds I can feel everyone else’s emotions just by looking at them. And I seem to gain those emotions, I think there’s a term for it it’s called like empath or something like that.
Age at diagnosis: 16
Background: Devin lives with his girlfriend and other roommates in a city he recently moved to from another part of the country. He has a part-time job in a store. He is White.Click here to view Devin's profile page
Other people described deriving a sense of value in helping friends who also suffer with depression and mental illness.
Depression is one of the main drives that I have in being creative. I can’t not be creative. Or else I will self-destruct. So depression gives me that drive to get something out. It gives me a strength and an understanding towards others because I know what it feels like to be fragile. I know what it feels like to be on the verge of killing yourself or on the verge of harming yourself. So I’m more capable of being sympathetic. And it helps me deal with my friends who have depression. It helps me understand them better and they seem to be drawn to my energy and positivity because that’s something that a lot of people with depression don’t have. And that’s the reason I have it, that’s the reason I project it, is because I understand that so many people just don’t have it. So it’s helped me realize where others might need help and where I need help and how that can fit together.
People have told me that I was a positive influence on them or that I saved them from this feeling of isolation or I provided them friendship when nobody else really did. So I kind of see that I can help people, that I’m contributing something. And that, in turn, helps me value myself and-and be nicer to myself. So that, and-and give myself a break. So that I can continue to be good. And that in and of itself is a bit of a self-feeding cycle.
Age at diagnosis: 12
Background: Kate is an actress who works in an art gallery. She lives in an apartment with a roommate and a cat. She is white.Click here to view Kate's profile page
I really think that there’s someone out there who is going through the same issue that I am going though and if I could help them, if this is anything worth to them, worth. If this could stop them from doing something self-destructive. Then that makes me feel better about myself. That makes me less depressed because I am helping someone in the same situation as me. I was maybe one or two wrong turns from just taking my life. If this can be something that can help another person, that can give them the right decision that I made. I would be happy to do it, every time. I would, I don’t regret it.
Age at diagnosis: N/A
Background: Pete lives with his mother and cat in an apartment in a large city. He is Hispanic. He has worked various jobs in the past and is looking for work.Click here to view Pete's profile page
See also ‘Depression and identity’, ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘The positive sides of depression’, ‘Depression, spiritualty, and faith’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Depression and work’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and suicide’, and ’Depression and healing’.
*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.