“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
When we’re immersed in depression or anxiety, finding some semblance of happiness or purpose in life can feel almost impossible. Depression makes even the smallest task feel like a monumental effort, and anxiety tends to make us run from or avoid people and experiences.
Our self-confidence decreases, as we tend to forget that at one time we were functioning more effectively. Our shrinking back from life makes our world smaller, and we lose touch with those things that gave our existence meaning. Without meaning, we are more prone to chronic anxiety and depression – it’s a vicious cycle.
Even if we’re doing fairly well at the moment, we may still be haunted at times by the sense that we’re drifting somewhat aimlessly. So, how do we increase our sense of meaning and purpose?
First of all, it’s important to recognize that we create meaning – it isn’t bestowed upon us by external forces. Meaning comes from the way in which we look at things, the perspective we take, and the value we place on an experience. We have a choice in the matter.
Psychologist Dr. Thomas Marra, President of the Center for Dialectical Behavior Therapy, offers a useful acronym: SPECIFIC PATHS.
Supreme concern. Why is this activity, ideal, relationship, or cause important to me? What are the benefits? What is commendable about it (in my personal estimation)? If you’re in the throes of depression or anxiety, identifying the positive qualities of a value may be a hurdle, but try to set aside your negative thoughts.
Some possibilities for supreme concerns:
- Being kind.
- Being a good parent.
- Being a loving spouse.
- Being a good friend.
- Being encouraging.
- Having a healthy range of emotions.
- Helping people in need.
- Being able to provide for my family.
- Having a nurturing home in which to entertain family and friends.
- Appreciating the beauty in life.
- Excelling in my job.
- Helping my community.
- Being in excellent physical health.
- Having enjoyable hobbies.
- Having an extensive social network.
- Having self-respect.
- Living in accordance with my spiritual beliefs.
Don’t become paralyzed by having to pick the “perfect” supreme concern – the options are endless, and your supreme concern can change from time to time.
Practice. Easier said than done. Whatever habit you’ve decided to adopt, the importance of repetition cannot be overemphasized. Make it easier on yourself by linking your new habit to an activity you already do. For instance, if your plan is to eat more healthfully rather than dashing out the door in the morning without fueling up for the day, try pairing a nutritious breakfast with your usual habit of reading the newspaper, rather than just drinking a cup of coffee or eating a pastry.
Energy. Even if you may need to do some pretending, try to approach your new activity, behavior, or viewpoint with some enthusiasm. For example, when the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. and it’s pitch black outside, venturing forth to the gym for your morning workout may not sound very appealing. Nevertheless, attempt to engage in your activity with a sense of respect, open-mindedness, and curiosity. Instead of wondering, “What will go wrong?”, consider “What will go right?”
Concentration. Instead of living on automatic pilot, focus on what you’re doing. Be present emotionally and mentally as well as physically. Get into the flow. Put all you are into this moment. If your intention is to show more interest in your spouse or children, put your entire effort into listening to them and responding to their needs.
I. Remind yourself that this is your plan, your intention, not something imposed on you by someone else. Tell yourself, “I am doing this for me.” True, your actions will undoubtedly affect others down the line, but right now the important thing is to remember that your goal is the intrinsic satisfaction you’ll feel as you take action in accordance with your values.
Faith. Once you’ve made a decision as to your priorities and have chosen a course of action, the next step is to move forward with trust and become engrossed in your activity. Don’t expend unnecessary energy worrying about the outcome. A watched pot never boils. Creating meaning in your life comes from throwing yourself whole-heartedly into your choices, doing the footwork, and accepting that the results are not fully within your control. Don’t over-think the situation.
Important. Remember why you’ve chosen this particular habit or activity and its personal significance to you. Continue to choose to make it important to you. Resist the urge to belittle the importance just because you’re in a bad mood, tired, hungry, stressed, or the like, all of which can lead to emotional reasoning.
Courage. If fears crop up, as they probably will, telling you that you don’t have what it takes, that the challenge you’ve picked isn’t worth the effort, or that you can’t stand your current discomfort, courage will enable you to push forward.
Patience. Some days will be easier than others. You probably won’t see results from your efforts right away. Practicing patience demonstrates to you that your priority, your supreme concern, is worth the wait. Living a life based on your values is a marathon, not a sprint.
Attention. Do one thing at a time. Resist the impulse to multi-task, which will dilute the amount of energy you bring to any one activity.
Tasks. Notice your relationship to your activity. Take turns focusing on the task at hand and then on your interaction with the task. In other words, if you’re playing the piano, first notice the keyboard and the sound of the notes. Then turn your attention to how your hands feel on the keyboard and the feeling of the music resonating through your body. We find meaning through our connections.
Humility. Let go of trying to be perfect. Recognize that striving for perfection is just a recipe for misery, not a path to meaning. Even if you’re scared, frustrated, unsure, or you stumble, you can still live a purposeful and valuable life.
Sensitive to self. We learn as we go, as we dare to engage in life. As you progress, pay close attention to how your actions are affecting you. Guard against being overly influenced by what other people think or societal values, which can be skewed or simply different from your personal priorities. On the other hand, be aware of how your devotion to what you’ve identified as your supreme concern is affecting you, in terms of your emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. While it wouldn’t be wise to abandon your supreme concern the first time you encounter a hurdle, it’s important to note if your personal experience is telling you that you may need to modify your plan and to take appropriate measures.
To recap, make it a daily discipline to review your intentions.
What am I doing today to address my SPECIFIC PATHS?
Am I doing anything today that is interfering with my SPECIFIC PATHS?
What can I do to get back on track?
Set a reminder on your phone, go over your priorities on your morning commute, mull them over at breakfast – set up a plan that will work with your daily routine. Doing so will help you generate a sense of meaning and value to your life, which can make the difference between dragging yourself out of bed (or refusing to get out of bed) and facing the day with enthusiasm and drive.
Marra, T. (2004). Depressed and Anxious: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Workbook for Overcoming Depression and Anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.