Depression and the meaning of life

Depression can make your life seem painful and pointless. It can also make life in general seem empty and meaningless. Simply dismissing these feelings as ‘irrational’ or a symptom of ‘illness’ ignores the fact that questions about the meaning of life are profound issues facing humanity in general.

Existential questions

Some of the big philosophical or existential questions facing each of us include:

  • Who am I?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Is it possible to make meaningful connections with others or are we all fundamentally alone?
  • How can I make sense of life in the face of pain, suffering and inevitable death?
  • How can I be sure I am making the right choices for my life?

There are also serious questions facing the human race as a whole. Global conflict and war, global warming, environmental destruction, devastating natural disasters, famine, genocide, widespread human poverty and other such large-scale issues also challenge us all with difficult questions about our future.

No easy answers


There are no easy answers to any these questions! Most of the time, we live our lives on the basis of answers and meanings which we have not questioned or considered in detail. We grow up with a view of life learnt implicitly in our family, school and cultural environment. But adolescence and early adulthood is often a time when these questions can become very prominent. Sometimes the assumed meanings and answers no longer feel adequate and we can be left feeling that we face a void of meaning.

Depression as a challenge to make meaning

Some people think that the pain of depression can be seen as a kind of ‘signal’ to ourselves to take stock and reassess our lives. At the very least, we may need to recognise and change unhelpful habits like depressed thinking. It may also be the opportunity to think more deeply about how to make our lives more meaningful.

The Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, built a philosophy based on his concentration camp experiences which takes seriously the challenge of making sense of the suffering human beings experience. This philosophy accepts suffering as an ‘ineradicable part of life’* and emphasises the responsibility of each human being to stop asking for life’s meaning to be provided, but instead to “recognise that it is he or she that is being asked” (see ‘Books’).

It’s up to us!

In other words, there is no predetermined meaning to life – it is up to us to try to make our lives meaningful. As individuals we have to find what values or goals or occupations will give our own lives meaning. And as communities and societies we have to find how best to work together to build meaningful futures.

The answers will be different for everybody, but the things that have helped many people find meaning in their lives include: feeling that their occupation is worthwhile or helpful to others; having a religious belief or a value system which gives meaning; being in touch with the natural world; or simply each day reminding themselves what they are thankful for.

Start small

Of course when getting out of bed in the morning is quite enough of a challenge, then this might all seem a bit daunting! Depression works hard to empty our lives of meaning. Tackling depression should start in small steps and should focus on finding the smallest changes that can make the biggest difference first (see ‘Finding what works for you’). But knowing that there is a way to get meaning back into your life can also be a motivating goal to work towards in the long run.

Next: Tackle depression

Related

Finding what works for you
Planning a life worth living
Books