How to find meaning in life when you’re depressed

How to find meaning in life when you're depressed

How to find meaning in life when you’re depressed…It can take huge effort. Enormous effort. It can feel impossible. I know from experience, back when I was suffering from depression now about 8 years ago. 

Depression itself can strip meaning of everything you used to once enjoy and value. And because depression also affects your view of the future (typically very bleak), you also struggle to imagine that you might one day be filled with meaning and purpose again. But trust me, it’s possible. Trust that things won’t always feel so meaningless.

Creating more meaning in your life can be one of the most important things that will pull you out of depression. It can create hope (a key component of overcoming depression!) and finally make you feel motivated again. You’ll regain a sense of direction in life, and importantly have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Focusing on meaning, rather than happiness, can really be a key part of overcoming depression.

How to find meaning in life when you're depressed - My heartfelt advice

So onto how to find meaning in life when you’re depressed. As always, read this through and see what feels right to you. And perhaps try reading it with your heart rather than your mind.

Let's learn from world-renowned psychotherapist, author and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl

If a lack of meaning in life is something that is deeply unsettling for you, I’d encourage you to read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning“. It is short and easy to read, although also very upsetting at times given the many stories about life in concentration camps. Frankl himself survived three such camps. And having gone there already trained in psychotherapy, he thought deeply about why some people gave up hope and others didn’t. 

Frankl argues that we can discover meaning in life in three different ways:

1. By creating a work or doing a deed (What is your responsibility in life? What is asked of you? How do you need to contribute to the larger world?)

2. By experiencing something or encountering someone

3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

 

To give an example, for me personally I find meaning through all those three areas – but that wasn’t always the case and it’s an ongoing never-ending process.
My work in helping others overcome depression after my own horrendous experience feels like my duty. And so whilst it’s challenging, it’s incredibly rewarding and meaningful. My work is my anchor.
Next, I have come to appreciate the enormous sense of meaning I gain by forming deep connections with like-minded individuals. Sharing deeply and connecting authentically are truly nourishing experiences. Without them my soul would starve. 
And thirdly, I am more and more embracing the fact that life is difficult (or “life is suffering” as the Buddha said). Therefore, challenges and problems are unavoidable, and yet we learn and grow through these experiences far more than during the easier times in life. Suffering can exist alongside joy, and it’s in suffering that we find meaning.

So if you are struggling with lack of meaning, consider these questions:

1. What is asked of you as an individual? How can you contribute given your unique set of strengths, values, skills and experiences? What is your responsibility? 

2. Are there particular experiences that provide a deep sense of meaning to you? Or particular people? 

3. Would you perhaps benefit from cultivating a healthy mindset about what it means to be human? Can you find meaning in the harder parts of your life? What is your current challenge teaching you?

In some ways, the blog post could end here because your answers to those three questions are what really matter. It’s about what’s meaningful to you – and only you can know that. 

But do read on for more practical suggestions on how to find meaning when you’re depressed. They all complement the above.

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

Herman Hesse

What are your values, strengths & passions?

A core part of my work with my clients is allowing them to come home to themselves. And that means really exploring who you are. So questions like:

What are your values? What matters to you (or what used to matter if your depression is particularly bad at the moment)? What lights you up? When’s the last time you had a moment of feeling truly alive, and what was happening at the time? What do you wish you could have more of? What are you naturally good at? What compliments have you received from others? What was praise about?

If money wasn’t an issue and success was guaranteed, what would you do with your time? 

What would you regret not doing in your life?

And just to add, this does not have to be about your job. This could be about your most treasured hobby or thing-on-the-side. 

But most of all, make sure you are living life based on what’s right for YOU. Don’t live it according to other people’s expectations – that will only leave you with regrets. 

If my life is going to mean anything, I have to live it myself."

Rick Riordan

Focus on others, not yourself

Research has shown that volunteering can be an effective additional treatment option for depression (1). And that makes sense: helping others or contributing to a good cause boosts our satisfaction with ourselves and lifts our mood. And it can bring an enormous amount of meaning into our lives. 

Depression can make us very, very inward focused (I speak from experience). So by intentionally focusing on things or people other than ourselves, we can take positive action and often end up feeling better.

Healthy habits, routines or rituals

Structuring our days in certain ways can really help to provide a kind of anchor. We feel less lost and know what we’ll be doing next. And perhaps this is particularly important for the start of the day – but I’m not going to suggest any kind of morning routine. Ask yourself how you’d like to begin your day, and see if you can incorporate routines throughout. Perhaps it’s lighting a candle in the morning or evening, going for a walk at a certain time each day, cooking and eating at regular times. Maybe you’re into reading or knitting or music or something else that is creative. Whatever makes you feel good deserves time in your schedule. Play around with routines, and use them as opportunities to create or sustain healthy habits.

And perhaps you might like to do something special for yourself each Sunday, or have a winter self-care bucket list, or meet an important friend every fortnight. Maybe you want to send birthday letters to friends and family and you could plan those throughout the year. If you have a particular faith, then perhaps there are events to look forward to, or rituals to enjoy.

What things can you repeatedly do that bring meaning to your days and life? 

At the end of life, what really matters is not what we bought, but what we built; not what we got, but what we shared; not our competence, but our character; and not our success, but our significance. Live a life that matters. Live a life of love.

Unknown

Connect with something higher than yourself

What do you believe in? 

Whether you go to some kind of place of worship, or consider yourself spiritual, whether you practice meditation or see nature as your big retreat space, spend time in those areas that matter to you. Many of us in the Western World have really lost touch with all matters that relate to the soul. And that can leave a big, big hole in our lives that can be difficult to fill in other ways. 

Traditionally, we would belong to a group or tribe, and the glue that kept everyone together was often a shared faith. We would find belonging and meaning there, seek inspiration and wisdom, and be comforted in times of crises. 

So if you are reading this and struggling with a lack of this kind of belonging or shared belief, see what resonates with you. What is out there that you could join? What is it that you believe in? Can you gain more meaning in life by nurturing those aspects of your life?

In the end, people don't view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people's minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.

Atul Gawande

Create a long-term plan- if it feels right

A lot of people (though not all) benefit from working on long-term goals, whether they relate to your career or work, study plans, retraining, family additions, where you live, instruments you want to play etc. 

And again, this comes down to knowing what deeply matters to you and the ways in which you can contribute with your unique gifts and passions somehow. If you do have a vision for yourself in the future, work on turning those into realities if that feels right. If it matters to you, then it’s important.

Don't die with your music still in you

Dr Wayne Dyer

Lastly, avoid common traps of modern life

Before I finish I want to touch on common ways of suffering I see over and over again in my work.

One relates to people overworking themselves and alongside that intense feelings of guilt if they’re not working all the time. If that’s you, do yourself a favour and spend an hour or two watching an animal out in the wild. Or even your pet. Spend some time thinking about how animals spend their entire day, day after day. And then contrast that with the demands you place on yourself. If that doesn’t bring big lightbulb moments, you probably need to spend some more time watching those animals. 

The other thing that can really erode our sense of meaning is spending too much time on electronic devices. In and of themselves they’re not good or bad. In fact, through my phone or the internet I have met some of the most amazing people in my life. But if you notice that your life’s joy and energy are being pulled out of you by too much time on social media or in front of the TV, then it’s time to rethink your habitual use of these things. Don’t be too hard on yourself here, but have a think – and as always with buckets full of self-kindness. Once you realise you matter, your time matters. 

An invitation to work together

If you are suffering from depression and would like to learn more about my holistic approach to overcoming it, then I’d simply invite you to book a half hour chat with me via Zoom. I offer it for free and with zero obligation to book anything afterwards. Let’s meet and see if my work might help you too. 

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognise that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: Know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

References

1 Ballard, P. J., Daniel, S. S., Anderson, G., Nicolotti, L., Caballero Quinones, E., Lee, M., & Koehler, A. N. (2021). Incorporating Volunteering Into Treatment for Depression Among Adolescents: Developmental and Clinical Considerations. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 642910. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.642910

Hello, I'm Claudia

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

Download my free guide: 15 ways to overcome depression naturally