For years now I have been fighting with various degrees of depression, dejection, loneliness, ennui, and existential terror. I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think my experience is unordinary. On the contrary, I think most people are lonely; most people are dejected; most people feel an intense lack of purpose in their lives; most people are just worn threadbare and wishing for a break from the unceasing trudgery. In the last three years I’ve made impressive progress in managing my various distresses and I’d like to share them with you.

It’s important to have priorities that you can rely on as checks to make sure that you are on track to preserving your health and your happiness. Below are my recommendations for a check list to return your sanity and peace of mind when things start to get out of control…as they inevitably will.

  1. Energy. Organize your life around maximizing your energy rather than your time and your money. If you don’t have enough energy, everything will start to shut down. In really bad cases, you might find you don’t have enough energy to feed yourself, whether that means cooking your own dinner or hauling your exhausted form out to pick something up. If you don’t eat and sleep properly, you can’t think straight and everything takes more time, so when things go crazy the first order of business is to eat a good, filling, ideally healthy meal, but go for filling if you can’t get both. Then go to sleep. Don’t worry about the deadlines and trust that by restoring your energy with nutrition and rest that you will move faster and more efficiently and the rest will work itself out.
  2. Happy. The second priority is Happy. Individually, personally, do you have Happy in your life? If not, after you have made sure to top off your energy reserves, the next thing to do is go out and find some things to make Happy for yourself. Many people try to be “selfless” and always put other people first. It’s honorable, but it’s going to kill you. You were born. You are alive. That means that you have a right to be happy. In this case, what you’re looking at is the “crashing airplane rule”: put on your own happy mask before aiding others in getting their happy.
  3. Community. You should have some People who you feel at home with, who support you, understand you and encourage you in your goals. If you don’t have People, you will become bitter and empty. I know it’s hard to have a sense of community in our modern society — you go to work, you come home, you buy everything you need with money, and you respect privacy instead of sharing intimacy with anyone. Humans are social animals, though. We were never meant to be alone, we were never meant to struggle as just “us and the kids” and if this is the way your life has become, you can be sure that you are accumulating chronic stress as a result. So if you have to make a choice between your responsibilities and a chance to feel community with people, go for the People. It will nurture you and make you stronger in the long run.
  4. Purpose. If you are eating and sleeping well, and interacting with your People regularly, the next priority to sort out is purpose. It’s not enough to work to pay the bills. If you do this long enough you will forget why you are alive. Eventually paying the bills just isn’t motivation enough. Your third priority should be finding a way to support yourself (food, shelter, hobbies etc) while simultaneously feeling as though your efforts are moving towards a greater goal that you truly believe in. If you have a family, supporting your family might be enough motivation. If you are single, like myself, then perhaps you need to select a company or organization that provides a service to society that you believe it. This one couple I know only works when they have a travel plan in mind that they need to fund. I think they have the purpose point totally figured out! I know these days everyone feels pressure to just take any job that they can just in order to survive, but if you don’t have a reason to survive, then eventually you just won’t.

I think once you’ve gotten around to fulfilling purpose, you’re doing pretty well. Me, I usually get stuck at point #2. It took me years to figure out how to preserve my energy. I need more sleep than the average human — usually at least 9 hours a night. I only know one other human who sleeps as much as I do. She sleeps 10 hours and has created all kinds of habits to make sure that she doesn’t waste a precious second of her waking hours because she refuses to go short on sleep. Lately I’ve noticed that I don’t just get hangry, too. I get hungry-depressed. When I’m under-sleeped or under-nourished, everything starts to look so big and so daunting that I just want to crawl in a hole and hide until after the nuclear apocalypse makes it all go away. So for me, when stuff starts to go bad, I put all my focus into getting good quality sleep and good nutrition.

I’ve also figured out how to generate happy. I’m actually pretty easy to make happy. The sunset makes me happy. The wind on my skin as I ride my bike makes me happy. My weasels sleeping peacefully in an intertwined pile of soft wonderfulness make me really happy. I was raised Christian, though, and the whole selfless ideology was a huge handicap to me discovering how to be happy. Christianity promises that if you “love others as you love yourself” that God will give you peace and joy. Well, the trick here is that you have to love yourself first, or else you’re just hating everybody, aren’t you? I didn’t learn how to love myself until I got divorced, and even then it took years of therapy before I figured out the trick. This is a big one and it takes work, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

Community and Purpose are where I’m stuck now. I am pretty good at my job, and I go out climbing and biking and see people, but none of them are attached to me in any way. I could leave, or they could leave, and there would be fundamentally no difference in either of our lives. I’m not really sure how to bridge this divide and go from acquaintances with common hobbies to true friends that care for each other and provide support and community. I’m open to tips, here, but I admit this is a huge problem. As for purpose, well, my job feels pretty meaningless. I write papers, people say they are “interesting.” I teach some classes with students that change every 3 months and they are often asleep while I’m talking to them. It’s hard to feel like any of my actions have meaning in this environment. I’m actually thinking that if I change my job to work for a non-profit supporting a purpose that I believe in, that perhaps I might be able to simultaneously generate community and purpose at the same time, but I’ll have to let you know if that happens.

Notice that “saving for retirement” and “making enough money to pay the bills” aren’t priorities. I don’t think these types of common sense priorities are things that really matter in life. I mean, why are you paying the bills if you don’t have energy to get through your day? Why would you save for retirement if you aren’t happy now? You might not live that long. How would your life change if you let go of the responsibilities that other people told you are important and just focused on these four things? How much fuller and more brilliant would your days be?