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Finding meaning in life

Dear Alice!

I'm desperate (a permanent state, I suppose, not only for me, but also for most of my fellow human beings). I've forgotten the reason why I'm on this Planet. My life seems so senseless, eating, sleeping, going to work, hobbies, of course, while all around me, the world is tumbling down. How do I put some meaning in my life?

Signed, Forgetful Amsterdam

Dear Forgetful Amsterdam,

Most people gets the blues sometimes — they're a typical, but not terribly fun, part of life. However, when the feelings you're describing linger for weeks or months, or when it keeps you from getting to sleep at night or getting out of bed in the morning, then it may be a different experience. For example, having feelings of helplessness or losing interest in hobbies are common symptoms of depression. There's also a phenomenon called existential distress, in which you may feel disconnected or disoriented in how you're experiencing life. These two experiences are pretty similar in terms of feeling as if life is meaningless, but they’re also different in critical ways. It might be helpful to learn more about each to determine what may be contributing to your feelings of being down in the dumps.

To begin, depression is a mood disorder. To be diagnosed with depression, you typically must exhibit symptoms for at least two weeks. You may experience none, one, or some of these symptoms:

  • Continual feelings of sadness, emptiness, and helplessness that seem to have no cause
  • Loss of interest, or pleasure, in ordinary activities, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, and feeling slowed down
  • Sleep problems (i.e., insomnia, oversleeping)
  • Eating problems (i.e., loss of, or increased, appetite; bingeing)
  • Difficulty concentrating, or making decisions
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Irritability
  • Excessive crying
  • Chronic physical aches and pains that don't respond to treatment
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Thoughts of death, suicide, or suicidal attempts

There are also different forms of depression that manifest themselves in different ways.

  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia) is a prolonged sense of depression with less intense symptoms that usually lasts about two years.
  • Postpartum depression occurs when someone who gives birth experiences feelings of anxiety and sadness that make it difficult to care for their newborn child.
  • Psychotic depression is a form of depression that's accompanied by some form of psychosis, such as auditory or visual hallucinations.
  • Seasonal affective disorder is a recurring form of depression that comes around during the winter months when there's less natural sunlight, and it typically reduces in severity during the spring and summer months.
  • Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycles of intense feelings of sadness and mania.

Existential distress, on the other hand, occurs when you feel like it's difficult to find meaning in life. People who experience existential distress may feel disconnected from certain parts of life, such as having a purpose in life, building relationships with others, or even a need to be extraordinary. If you're dealing with existential distress, you may be asking yourself existential questions about topics such as life and death or morality. Typically, existential distress takes place after significant life events that cause a re-evaluation or restructuring of the meaning of life. It may occur over the concepts of death, sense of independence, social connection, or feeling that you're having little impact in the grand scheme of life. There may be a scientific explanation for these experiences — some studies have demonstrated that working on tasks that don't require a lot of brain stimulation may lead to increased thoughts that are unrelated to that task. That is, if you're feeling unstimulated by projects that you're working on, you may be more likely to daydream or think about situations unrelated to your task at hand.

It may be helpful to reflect on what may be contributing to these feelings of senselessness. For example, have you recently experienced a major life event that changed your life path? Do you have a family history of depression or other types of mental illness? Have you recently experienced a major loss of a friend or family member? Are you easily bored when you work on projects or assignments? Do you often wish you were someone or somewhere else? Do you feel unfulfilled by your school, work, or social life? Are you experiencing a lot of stress in your life? Your answers to these questions may help pinpoint strategies to help overcome these feelings.

Feeling unfulfilled in life can really be a bummer. You do have options, though. It may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional about your feeling of the world tumbling down, especially if your feelings are impacting your ability to go about your daily activities. If you’re experiencing depression, you may be prescribed antidepressants or recommended for talk therapy. If you think existential distress is what's contributing to your feelings, you might want to consider additionally speaking to a spiritual counselor or someone who can help you feel more connected to the world. In the meantime, there are some steps you can take to alleviate some of these feelings. For example, being physically active and spending time with people you trust may help you feel more connected physically and emotionally. Additionally, it might be helpful to volunteer or participate in organizations that contribute to the greater good. Finally, you may want to consider avoiding making major life decisions until you have a more concrete view of what you want and how you're feeling.

Good luck in your quest to find fulfillment!

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Last updated Feb 12, 2021
Originally published Dec 04, 1995

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