Updated on 04.06.11

What’s Worth Living For?

Trent Hamm

Lenny writes in with a fairly distressing email:

All of your articles assume a few things, and one of the big ones is hope for the future. Most of what you talk about is useless if you don’t have anything to live for.

My first reaction to this was to send Lenny a private email suggesting that he may be depressed and encouraging him to talk to his doctor about taking some steps to improve his situation, which is what I usually do when I receive emails from people who seem to be depressed (I seem to get a lot of them, actually).

The more I thought about Lenny’s comment, though, the more I realized that he was right in some ways. Many of the posts on The Simple Dollar do assume that you have something to live for.

I often leave that “something to live for” completely unstated because, for me, I don’t have to look around at the world too much to find things that are worth living for. My wife and my kids are the first obvious answers, but there are many more than that: the charities and groups that I try to help, the Simple Dollar readers that I know I’m helping, the well-being of my community as a whole, social concerns I’m involved with, and so on. Even if I were to lose my wife and children at this point, I think that, after I reeled from the blow for a while, I would have enough things that are worth living for that I would eventually pick myself up and move on.

If that type of answer doesn’t come easily for you, the easy answer is to simply say you’re depressed. After further thought, however, I don’t think depression is the only answer here. It can easily be a matter of simply not yet finding something in your life that lights your fire.

If you’re involved in that type of struggle, where the underlying motivation to improve your situation at all is a struggle, here are a few suggestions for you.

Find ways to be more social. For some (including myself), it can be a real challenge to interact successfully with other people in face-to-face environments. I’ll be the first to admit that I have to really work at this to make it happen, as my own self-consciousness tends to undermine me every time.

However, making that effort offers tremendous rewards beyond the simple joy of companionship. I get a unique opportunity to learn more about the world and about the people around me. I get the chance to see the world through the eyes of others. I get to see that the experience of happiness and joy and sadness are all not just unique to me. Almost always, I’m left with a desire to make the world a better place somehow.

Look into the situations of people with fewer advantages than you. If you’re reading this, you have more advantages than a lot of people in this world. There are people without food to eat. There are people without clean water. There are people without basic education. There are people without basic skills. Often, this isn’t a matter of self-sufficiency or lack thereof.

I’m often particularly affected by the plight of children, which is why I often mention Jump for Joel, and the plight of the developmentally disabled, which is why I often mention L’arche Tahoma Hope.

Explore the varieties of religious experience. An exploration of one’s spiritual side often brings into light the nature of life. I don’t just mean go to church. I mean exploring the practices of a lot of different faiths. Try different methods of prayer and of meditation. Visit houses of worship of vastly different religions than your own.

This isn’t a push to abandon your own beliefs. It’s encouragement to find new ways to connect to your spiritual side and to dig deep into your own connections to the world and to what lies beyond, whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist.

Read philosophy. The works of great philosophers often hold incredible value for helping us understand the world. For example, the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson have had a huge impact on my life over the past year or so, shaking some of the fundamental ways in which I view the world.

Each time I notice myself growing and changing, I find that my connection to the world is stronger and my purpose in life is greater than it was before.

Explore the world around you. Go on a walk in the woods or a stroll through a park. Walk around the block. Stroll through what you consider to be a different neighborhood than your own. Look around and watch and listen.

What do you see that you like? What do you see that bothers you and makes you uncomfortable? Why do you feel this way about these things? Are they based on real things that you can work to change, or are they based on your own preconceptions? Just wandering around can open lots of purposeful doors for us.

Rather than thinking about what you can’t do, think about what you can do. Many people, particularly those who are ill or disabled, tend to focus on the things that they can’t do. They can’t get around too well. They get tired easily. They’re in pretty constant pain from their knees.

What they forget to see is the abundance of things they can do. A low-energy person can still rock a baby to sleep and bring that baby comfort. A person who can’t get around very well can still read stories at the library or read aloud from novels at a retirement home.

If you focus on the abundance of things you can do rather than dwell on the things you can’t do, you can always find yourself to be very helpful to those who need you.

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  1. kristine says:

    I find spending time with children, or helping others, does it for me. Or time alone in nature-solo camping. One note on the philosophers- choose carefully. I dropped out of existentialism 2x in college as it made me extremely depressed.

  2. Sonja says:

    I am on the same wavelength as Kristine! Skip the existentialists. Also, if you watch a lot of cable news, turn it off. Write a letter to a soldier – make someone’s day brighter. I like the nature things – planting, gardening, hikes in the nature preserve with my camera. Always interesting. Or get out and take a class in something that interests you like art, cooking, learning a language, computer skills, etc.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Trent, please consider carefully which words you choose to use when talking about those who are developmentally different that yourself. I doubt that it was intentional, but “plight” isn’t a word I want associated with my 2 challenged sons. We also don’t “suffer” and don’t need pity, although compassion is a good thing. Just food for though.

    Working with people with differing abilities can be an amazing experience, and can change your whole outlook on the world. I would encourage it for anyone, especially young people, who are becoming more and more focused only on themselves.

  4. TLS says:

    Trent gives some good ideas here. I have two other suggestions that have really helped me.

    1. Experience art – Visit a museum or gallery, enjoy music, or try out something else that interests you. Many cities have free or low-cost ways to do this. My city has an outdoor sculpture park you can visit for free.

    2. Travel – This is not an option for everyone, of course. But travel to a foreign country (especially one that is less ‘well-off’ than the country you live in) can really make you feel thankful for everything you have.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I would encourage EVERYBODY to go to the Dr. if they are feeling this way. You may be unable to find that thing that “lights your fire” because you have other issues going on. I thought this way for too long (no, I’m not depressed, I’m a happy person, just a little unfocused), until I went to the Dr. and got diagnosed as bi-polar. Things made sense all of a sudden, and as soon as I started taking medication, I found out that there were things out there that I was interested, and worth really working for. If people are worried about funding medication, there is a program called “Bridges to Access” that provides medication to lower income individuals at no cost.

    And I would second Rebecca’s comment about choosing words carefully. While people with children with special needs have different needs and challenges in life, we do not in fact suffer. I thought I was a very compassionate person until my son came along, and all of a sudden I can now relate to others on a whoooooole different level. A little in return is always nice. But not in a condescending, pitying kind of way, please.

  6. Brenda W. says:

    Ditto what Sonja mentioned … turn off the news. And expand that to “Carefully monitor what you expose yourself to”. TV news is visual, and designed for 30 second impact statements … 90% or more of which are the negative things of society.

    I obtain my news via reading, and I’ve found eliminating the VISUAL aspect of world and national news does not make me feel so “ill” in my inner being the way WATCHING the news does.

    And in addition, one must still also fill yourself with overall POSITIVE aspects of the world … balance and overcome the “bad news” with good things. Find blogs that highlight good things that folks are doing or writing about. As Trent mentioned, involve yourself in something that is fun and rewarding. Spend time around optimistic folks, and limit your time around those who are always focusing on the negative.

    These things may not change how you feel in a day or two, but it probably will when done consistently for a month or two.

  7. Stephan F- says:

    One thing I hated in school was the advice “find yourself” Hello, I’m right in front of you.

    No you have to find your element, that thing that lets you dive into flow and you are what you were born for. I just, as in yesterday, figured that out for myself.

    Everything changes when that happens. So many things fall away as unimportant.

    That said, it will take years to become a source of income to my family but it gives me something to live for that will make most any day-job more bearable.

    If you are needing to do things that are harmful for recreation, over-eating, alcohol, etc) this is a warning sign you have not found the thing what you can live for.

  8. Parisian Thinker says:

    Who wouldn’t be depressed? USD has lost its purchasing power and no interest is received for savings. The water is polluted and radiation is coming your way. We all want life and to live, but those in charge want “genocide” for us and are very happy with the present situation.

  9. deRuiter says:

    Go to the local animal shelter a couple of times a week and walk some poor dog on death row. He’ll be thrilled and greatful, and the fresh air and sunshine may make you feel better.

  10. littlepitcher says:

    Living on junk foods definitely will cause depression. I’d recommend some B vitamins and sublingual B12. Exercise in sunlight is a common treatment.
    Don’t allow the human race or your current circumstances to affect your mood. Seth Godin’s recommendation “don’t wait to be chosen” applies here. Act instead of waiting to be chosen–by life, by employers, by acquaintances.

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