The affliction of our age is to live without purpose. Its emotional effects are often labelled with that catch-all word "depression", but I am speaking of something which is not a mental illness. Too often we live without a clear sense of meaning, without something important to serve, with nothing to strive for. A blanket of deflation and despair then settles upon us. In this state, how does life become meaningful again?
We live in times of unprecedented wealth and comfort. Sure, we must pay the rent, but rich or poor, it is easy to lose our days in distraction and pleasure according to our means. A friend commented on his (video) gaming recently that "It is like self-harm" - that he feels flat and empty and even a little angry afterwards. Such examples abound.
In this context numerous people have come to see me in counselling because they have lost a sense of meaning. Something interesting happens with some of these people, and over time these specific examples have taught me a lot. Some weeks or months into our time together the person has taken on a new volunteering role, for example coaching of an adolescent sports team. And then their melancholia shifted, their mood and sense of meaning improved.
As these people start looking out for others in turn they began to feel that life was meaningful, that it had a purpose, even if they could not yet clearly define that. In they began to care more about themselves and their own life, with a sense of greater confidence that they mattered. Accordingly their melancholia lifted. It did not always go away, or at least not at first - although sometimes it did - but at any rate the shift was significant.
As I write about these examples, which I have witnessed multiple times, I can hear some people accusing me of offering simplistic answers to complex problems. But such objections often assume that our problems must be profound. That if something really challenges us then it must be deep and complex. And that only deep and complicated solutions will do. Paradoxically, this objection is simplistic. Some people's despair is indeed profound and complex, especially when rooted in something like significant trauma requiring specialist therapy. But in many cases this is simply not true. And so by a recipe of analysis by paralysis, and pretension for sophistication, mixed perhaps with a taste for indignance ("How dare you!"), people fail to overcome their problems and they worsen.
In fact many of our problems are simple at the intellectual level. We can see this if, paradoxically, we look properly and think clearly. Often the answer lies not in cleverness and sophistication, but in clear-headed courage and action. The point of my example above is not that coaching a sports team will cure your ills, but that the lack of meaning and purpose that people feel generally requires, not so much an intellectual solution, as meaningful action. Meaningful action that is like a single thread which, woven together with others, combines to create a meaningful life.
We can lose touch with genuine value and we need, in concrete ways, to reconnect with it. To live a life actively centred on what matters most. And to let that shape our mind and heart, our actions and feelings.
Here is one of the big mistakes that hold us back in this: we want a life without struggle. That is the core fantasy in so many daydreams. But it is not real living, and needs to be abandoned in favour of something much better. Rather than avoiding struggles, we need to find ones worth embracing. Sure, we don’t want to suffer useless anxiety. But we do need to care deeply about the right things, and that will inevitably put us in a situation where we sometimes have to worry. Rather than seek a life without anxiety, we need instead to live with the fear that comes with commitment, and to learn to face it with the passion and force of love.
How many of us - especially those in a melancholic state of quiet sadness and anger - have a clear sense of purpose? What does life ask of you? What do others need from you? What will you fight for? What will you die for? How concrete are these values in your life?
This is the purpose of philosophy, and of counselling, and especially of their combination. If you want to live a good and meaningful life then you need to find clear and worthwhile answers to such questions. What you become in life is a consequence of the struggle you are prepared to undergo. To live a good life we need to think clearly and to work hard. If your problem is rooted in a lack of genuine meaning and purpose - as it is for many people even when they don't realise it - then there is a clear way forward. All it takes is clarity and action.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Art: Eight Bells (1886) by Winslow Homer