3. Want and Try For What YOU Want

Part of human experience is a natural cycle of wanting things. Going farther back into the past, these were more often related to quality of life and human connection, but also things we would recognize as hobbies. This cycle consists of desire, effort, and fulfillment. Sufficient problems with any of them over a long period of time can result in depression.

This is different from saying that if you work hard, you’ll be happy. It’s saying that effort is part of a cycle, and if you keep working for things you don’t want and don’t get a reward that feels good to you, the cycle isn’t completing and you become demoralized. Unfortunately, our wants aren’t necessarily something we can choose. Some people are better-wired to feel rewarded by success. Feeling like the rewards society is offering are not pleasurable is both a cause and effect of depression. It’s not your fault if you’re not getting that boost.

I don’t know what I want
I don’t think I can have what I want
I want things, I make an effort, and I attain them
I want things and I get them easily

The following is aimed at people stuck on each individual step. If you don’t have the specific issue mentioned, it may be the wrong direction!

Problems with Desire

When you were a child, you wanted all kinds of things you saw. We learn not to want things, to varying extents, to protect ourselves from disappointment and hurt. It seems easier if we can convince ourselves “I’m fine without that. It’s not that exciting. I don’t need anything.” But if you’re depressed, you’re not fine.

How many things can you remember wanting when you were younger? Chances are some will seem strange or totally unexciting to you now, but some may resonate more than you think. How about going to the aquarium, or the beach, or wearing pretty dresses, or playing baseball, or a decoration at your grandparents’ house that you weren’t allowed to touch? When you were a teenager, did you imagine a living space with Christmas lights, or a lava lamp, or some sort of Ikea mood lighting? Or have you always wanted a clean open room with breezy decorations and indoor plants? If someone you didn’t particularly care about gave you flowers, would it still give you pleasure to see them and smell them?

Ask a friend to invite you to do something fun. Once the plan is made, do you find yourself getting excited about it? Afterward, do you remember it more fondly than “just hanging out”? Those are clues to what you want. If you can come up with things but they seem to slip your mind, keep a list. Or make a time to get in touch with your desires and then immediately work towards them.

You may notice self-judgments come up. These can be hard to deal with, but there’s one reason to be grateful to them. They point to things we want. We don’t suppress the thought of how much we don’t like chocolate doughnuts. You may also decide that a particular desire is not appropriate to act on. That’s okay, but if you allow the feeling of desire anyway, it will make it easier for other desires to emerge.

Lack of Opportunity for Effort

These problems include consumerism and overspending, gambling and porn addiction, and large amounts of video gaming, especially of a less intensive or “lootbox” or “gacha” variety. Notice how many of those are no longer rooted in specific desires, or even weren’t to begin with. For example, did you buy shoes because you wanted new shoes or those shoes, or just because you wanted to buy something? Did you spend money on game items because you wanted your favorites, or just to get new or “good” stuff? How many people gamble because they believe it’s a good way to get rich, and how many because it feels good?

There’s a story in 70s kids’ progressive touchstone Free to Be You and Me about “another Cinderella” who had everything and was unhappy until she was given… homework. As beloved as Free to Be is to me, that’s more than a bit facile in the age of “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me“! At best, the comparison to Cinderella serves as a reminder that a life of toil and other people’s priorities is also not a good thing. But it also suggests that this Cinderella’s suffering is legitimate. You have a third choice besides being Cinderella or the other Cinderella: integrate effort with your own desires.

Even if right now your attention goes to instant gratification, you have constructive desires too. They feel less appealing because they take effort and short-term pleasure doesn’t. For now, just notice what your most worthwhile desires are when they happen, and begin taking a different approach to the things you already want to do. As you get used to fulfillment coming from effort, the gap between “fun” and “too much work” will shrink. This cycle also improves self-esteem and inner strength, whether or not you “produce” anything at all.

For example, instead of playing video games for loot, you could focus on getting better at the game in new ways and set yourself one concrete goal at a time. Instead of buying something, what could you make that would be awesome? People make really cool things these days. A lot of them are even quick and easy. Have a look around Pinterest or Instructables.

Absence of Reward

Sometimes you try and try and still fail. Sometimes the person you like just doesn’t want to talk to you. Sometimes your wishes are fantastical or impossible. And it’s demoralizing if your basketball coach never notices how much you hustle because you’re 5’3″. It’s normal for these things to happen sometimes, but when they dominate your experience, it’s depressing.

Unfortunately, we can’t completely control outcomes, other people’s responses, or the laws of reality. Sometimes the only thing you can do is find different, rewarding desires. That doesn’t mean abandoning or suppressing the old ones. They can coexist and even be related, like playing soccer instead of basketball or live-action roleplaying as a substitute for visiting a fantasy world.

Finding fiction, video games, or porn more engaging than reality is common these days. Don’t worry, you don’t have to give up all screens and learn to love running or business meetings in order to engage with life. The less depressed and more fulfilled you are, the longer your interests will satisfy you and the more energy you’ll have for things you dislike. Ever hear of the “Rat Heaven” study? Even highly addictive substances weren’t that interesting to rats in a stimulating environment.

In the finale of the operetta Candide, they sing, “Let dreamers dream/What worlds they please/Those Edens can’t be found/The sweetest flowers,/The fairest trees/Are grown in solid ground.” You could take that as a condemnation of dreamers, but “the sweetest flowers” isn’t exactly hard-nosed productivity. The song is called “Make Our Garden Grow,” not “our crops.” It doesn’t say we can’t have a solid-ground Eden.

In unblocking any part of this cycle, start with small cycles. In the same way it’s important to start with small positive steps when you’re depressed, early successes make you believe it can happen. These aren’t just instructions for “how to be productive when you’re depressed,” they’re a method to improve depression in the long term. When you’re unable to be productive and indulging yourself makes you feel worse, maybe you can put a little effort into something that makes you happy, and reap long-term positive effects on motivation and confidence.

Go to Part 4: Fill the Emptiness with Love (Ways to Build Relationships and Be Likable When You’re Struggling and Not Feeling It)