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The Role of Purpose and Meaning in Healing From Depression

Anyone who has been through a severe depression knows how difficult it is to get out of bed to face the day. We may ask ourselves, “why bother when life seems so hard?” This question was asked by the great psychiatrist Victor Frank, during his imprisonment in the notorious Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz during World War II. Frankl wondered what it would take for people to survive the inhuman conditions of the camps. What he discovered truly surprised him, for he observed that those who survived the hell of the camps were not the strongest, the youngest or the healthiest individuals. They were those prisoners who had a REASON for staying alive--some purpose or mission that they hoped to accomplish after the war, or some loved one that were waiting to be reunited with. This allowed them to endure the harshness and brutality of the camps until they gained their freedom.

After the war, Frankl realized that the need for purpose and meaning was not just applicable to prisoners of war; it was a universal human need. In his role as a psychiatrist, Frankl discovered that many types of mental illness, including depression, improved when a person found a worthwhile purpose upon which to base his life. Conversely, he saw many people succumb to depression when they felt they had "nothing to live for."

Thus, I tell my clients to see if they can find ways to bring purpose and meaning into their lives. This could involve caring for one’s children, pursuing a creative or artistic vision, working for an important cause such as environmental preservation or social justice, being on a spiritual path, or simply being a model of mental health recovery for other people.

Here are some questions that you can ask yourself in order to find your purpose and meaning in your life:

  • What in my life do I care about or feel passionate about?
  • When I awake in the morning, do I have a reason to get out of bed? If so, what is it?
  • What are my unique talents and how can I offer them to the world?"

Then listen closely to the stirrings of your heart and write down what comes to you. You may also want to ask those closest to you to give you their feedback, for often others can see us better than we can see ourselves.

Having meaning in your life will not eliminate all your symptoms of depression. But it will give you periods of time when you can transcend your condition by focusing your mind and heart on something greater than yourself. This will make life worth living enough so that you can hang in there until your symptoms ease and you are lifted out of the darkness and back into the light.

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