Depression, Happiness, and Meaning in Life

Published on 1st December, 2020 by Benjamin Low

Depression, Happiness, and Meaning in Life

Before we begin, you do not have to be depressed or severely distressed to benefit from therapy. Sometimes, we just need a bit of help navigating through the peaks and valleys of life. With that in mind, let’s discuss one way that depression, the search for happiness, and a meaningful life are intertwined.

People often plan life as a series of steps that progress towards a goal. The plan involves future rewards and often have an abstract or social nature. The maturation of the brain in adolescence permits this sort of thinking, known as a ‘structured event complex’. For example:

Study hard---Score well---Go to university---Land a prestigious/well-paying job---Own a house/car---Live happily ever after.

The ability to create event complexes like these is one explanation for the increasing rates of depression between adolescence and the early twenties age groups. The perceived under-attainment of each intermediate step is naturally upsetting and it can vaporize the remaining steps of the event complex. This can lead to sadness and possibly depression.

Another interesting thing happens when we do get the desired outcome. Many people wonder what to do next. One person may have entered university, just like they’ve always dreamed of, only to feel lost when they think about what’s next. Others may have found employment and marriage. Yet, they realized that they have just ‘followed the script’ their whole life and don’t know what they want in the end. In my experience, this sense of feeling lost commonly occurs with university students, adults who have settled into their first job, and the so-called mid-life crisis of middle age.

We can get upset regardless of success or failure because we tend to pursue goals without a valued direction. A valued direction is a life direction that want to pursue. The pursuit of the direction itself is intrinsically meaningful to you at an emotional level. There does not need to be a logical reason for it.

For example, let’s say John’s valued direction is to “be a family man”. It includes dedicating time to both his wife and kids, learning how to be emotionally supportive, and paying a fair share of household costs. This is a direction rather than a discrete goal – there is no stopping point, no instance where John can say “yep, I’ve finished”. Goals like earning a specific amount of money, taking courses in emotional communication, and similar activities now gain meaning because they are aligned with his valued direction.

A valued direction isn’t an self-created prison either. John can pursue other valued directions in his personal life, such as sports or volunteering, even if they clash with family activities sometimes. Since valued directions have no end-point and time limit, he can choose to prioritise some directions over others at different times. All this adds more colour and meaning to his life, ultimately making him feel happy and fulfilled. It is the pursuit of this meaning that creates happiness. He did not ‘find’ happiness by achieving a random set of goals in a structured event complex. Instead, he created a life based on his valued directions, The goals along the way were merely a means of living out those directions.

Valued directions are just one part of a broader treatment known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is an evidence-based treatment for depression, anxiety, and several physical conditions with a psychological component. Other elements of ACT address the avoidance of important tasks, repetitive thought cycles, and unhelpful ways we try to be something or someone.

At times, life can feel like a stormy cruise but therapy can help you plot a meaningful course and surf the waves into the sunshine again.

This is an abbreviated version of the author’s original article. The extended version is an Editor’s Pick on Lifestyle Guide. Read the original article

Benjamin Low

About the Author - Benjamin Low

Benjamin is a clinical psychologist who has practiced across hospital, corporate, and university settings. He helps late adolescents and adults of all ages address psychological challenges, physical health problems, and occupational difficulties.

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