Self-Preoccupation + Meaninglessness = Depression?

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It’s a theme I’ve noticed in several books and it rings true for me.  Let me know what you think.

Now it’s not that this is THE answer to mitigating depression; it’s just a part of the puzzle.

The last book I read was Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.  Seligman talks about the combined risk of two trends:  the waxing of the self and the waning of the commons.

The first trend is the notion that the self reigns supreme. We used to live in a world where we didn’t have much choice.  There wasn’t much choice in consumer goods, who we could marry and the kinds of jobs we could get.

9555628592_5fa1044b53Photo Credit: {f}Finn via Compfight cc

Now we live in a world where we have endless choice.  As our choices grew, the advertising world fostered a belief in us that we could choose (buy) whatever life we wanted for ourselves.  We now feel a sense of personal control over our destinies.  We have become extremely individualistic.  And we have higher expectations.

We want more material goods.  We don’t just want a good paying job; we want meaningful and ethical work.  We expect more from our partners because we don’t have to settle when there’s endless choice out there.

In short, we expect to be happy.  We think being happy 90% of the time is normal. To make matters worse, we now have access to all kinds of personal information about other people’s lives, true or manipulated, that allows us to compare ourselves to others.

We have become absorbed with our gratifications and losses.  Our successes and failures.  Our comforts and discomforts.

Such a pre-occupation with self is a setup for depression.

Now add in the second trend – the decline of the commons – those settings like family, religion, community, nation that give us a sense of higher purpose or belonging.  I think I’d add nature to this list also.  These sources of meaning aren’t as strong as they used to be and the self is a poor replacement source of meaning.

This overcommitment to the self and undercommitment to the common good puts us in a struggle for identity, purpose and hope.

These two trends are the breeding ground for depression.  The mechanism by which depression then takes hold is learned helplessness – the giving up that characterizes people or animals when they face failures they can’t control.  Helplessness turns into hopelessness and can then escalate into depression.

I know this was a factor in my depression.  I had expectations for what life should be like at age 30 and I wasn’t going to meet any of my criteria.  I also look to work, still do, for a sense of higher purpose.  I’ve also noticed that people I speak with on the crisis line are often feeling depressed because they feel like they don’t measure up.  As if they don’t belong any more to the human race.  They see everyone else as getting ahead and they’re being left behind.  They think they’re a loser or a burden.

Seligman’s solution for these drivers of depression?  Flexible optimism and finding ways to feel connected to something larger and more meaningful than yourself.  The optimism will help you achieve your goals.  The goals, if they’re meaningful, will give you a sense of purpose.

Does any of this ring true for you?

What I’m reading now – The Depths:  The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic by Jonathan Rottenberg.

Me July 2013


About the Author
Michele Longo
I promote peer support and encourage people on their recovery journeys. My plan with this blog is to build a community of like-minded individuals offering ideas and encouragement from their own experiences. My master plan is to help create psychologically safe and supportive workplaces. I live in Calgary, Canada.

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2 thoughts on “Self-Preoccupation + Meaninglessness = Depression?

  1. April 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Michele – Great blog post. Totally agree!
    And yes – being connected to something bigger than yourself is a good way out of your head, or at least a good option to taking a break from the compassion conquest most of us are on. Giving ourselves something to focus on, put our attention on something other than what is right or wrong about our lives is key. Many of us need to wake up to this and once we do, we need to make sure we have the support around us to manage what we begin to see about ourselves. I believe the majority of my 17 years of success living with bipolar disorder comes from the ongoing self development work I do. That with a consistent regime of sleep, food, exercise, medication keeps me balanced, focused on my work, keeps my close relationships healthy. There are still days when all I do is compare to others, what I have or don’t have and those are the days that my performance is ineffective. Those are the days I could start sliding into a depression. Knowing what you use to numb yourself are also a great help. If my TV watching is more than a quick 20 minutes at lunch, that’s a good indication that my internal conversation is about not being connected, enough, or that I’m at a place in my life that by “someones” standard isn’t enough. In those moments, I’m working on finding ways to feel connected to something larger and more meaningful than myself. I think it’s a practice and it’s about having the supports in your life that will help shift that perspective. Lots of times when I’m in that dark place I’m scheduled to go to a peer support group that evening. And it never fails, I walk in disempowered and walk out with the optimism and connectedness that gets me back on track to achieving my goals.
    Leslie recently posted…Hall PassMy Profile

    1. Michele
      April 9, 2014 at 2:23 pm

      Thank you Leslie! Thanks for the RT also! I too have improved at this and don’t compare myself to others any more (much). But I find like you I have to keep on top of my thoughts and stay connected to something bigger or I sink back into depressive thinking. Nice plug for peer support too!

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