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How A Quest For Meaning Can Help Teenagers Beat Depression

Purpose over mere pleasure.

18/09/2017 8:31 AM IST | Updated 18/09/2017 8:31 AM IST
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The World Health Organisation tells us that depression affects more than 300 million people annually. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. As a result, nearly 800,000 people commit suicide every year. But what is perhaps most shocking is that suicide has now become the second leading cause of death amongst 15-29-year-olds.

These are alarming statistics.

In my work as an Emotional Intelligence and Life Skills educator, I have worked with tens of thousands of high school students across India. My work has given me the opportunity to look at the Indian teenager's psyche very closely over the last two decades. The high school years are rarely easy but I can safely say that even till about a decade ago, high schools were happier places than they are today. The last ten years or so, unfortunately, have seen a precipitous decline in the general feeling of well-being in adolescents. The reasons for this are obvious—ever-increasing academic pressure, bullying and social ostracism by peers, inordinate and largely negative social and mainstream media influences, and a breakdown in familial and societal support structures.

[T]his epidemic of depression has peaked at a time when, at least for urban youth in metropolitan India, all the things that make for "the good life" have never been easier to come by.

The curious thing, however, is that this epidemic of depression has peaked at a time when, at least for urban youth in metropolitan India, all the things that make for "the good life" have never been easier to come by. The ingredients of Freud's famous pleasure principle ("What decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle"— Civilization and its Discontents, 1930) are all in place—malls, multiplexes, movies, music, mega events. So why, as the WHO statistics bear out, is this generation one of the most anxious and depressed ever? What's missing?

There is one major contributing factor in teenage depression that we have managed to overlook. The adolescent's search for a deep, existential sense of meaning.

It was one of Freud's contemporaries, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and neurobiologist who spoke extensively about the deep connection between meaning and happiness. Frankl said, "What a man wants most is meaning, not just pleasure. When he can't find meaning, he distracts and numbs himself with pleasure."

Viktor Frankl is probably best known for his book Man's Search for Meaning, a gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring account of his time in not one, but two Nazi concentration camps! Frank watched his family members die one by one and despite the unspeakable atrocities that the Nazis subjected him to, he survived the death camps and the war.

Helping teenagers to view setbacks and challenges as instruments of growth instead of as permanent markers of failure is one of the greatest "life skills" we will ever teach them.

In 1946, Frankl was made head of the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology where he went on to treat nearly 30,000 depressed and suicidal patients, many of whom were traumatised by the devastations of the Second World War. Instead of having his patients delve into their pasts as the other psychotherapists of his day did, Frankl encouraged them to find happiness by finding meaning. His three-fold prescription for doing so was incredibly simple:

  1. Have a meaningful project or projects that require your attention and focus.
  2. Have healthy, nurturing relationships.
  3. Have a redemptive perspective on your challenges and suffering.

Under his care, not a single person committed suicide!

Perhaps we would do well to adopt Frankl's template with our youth?

1. Meaningful projects

Instead of pushing our children and/or students to pursue courses and vocations that we think will be good for them but which hold no personal meaning for them, perhaps we would do well to encourage them to explore their own intrinsic motivations and deep interests and base their education and careers on those. Author Frederick Buechner gave what is possibly the best piece of career of advice ever when he said, "Your vocation lies at the intersection of your deep gladness and the world's deep need."

2. Healthy, nurturing relationships

Our social relationships are among the biggest determinants of our happiness levels. Other people are often the source of great joy and also great pain, and if we can teach our young people to build positive and nurturing relationships and eschew toxic ones, we will have done them a great, life-long service. (Of course, doing so would mean walking our talk and learning to be good examples of human relations skills ourselves, first.)

3. Having a redemptive perspective on our sufferings

Those who can find meaning in life are, above all, those who can find a purpose in suffering. Helping teenagers to view setbacks and challenges as instruments of growth instead of as permanent markers of failure is one of the greatest "life skills" we will ever teach them. Is life just one damn thing after another or does everything teach us something? Those who can see the good in the bad are those who survive the worst vicissitudes of fate.

Let's make it possible for our teenagers to find their own deep, existential sense of meaning. It will be the greatest service we could ever provide them. And then, we won't need to worry about things like the "Blue Whale Challenge

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