Posts tagged goals

Goals and Depression


Striving towards meaningful goals is good for your well-being; even just having goals by themselves are indicative of well-being. This is an established dogma of positive psychology, so how can one argue that goals may be at the root of the experience called depression.

A framework that aims to throw some light on this is the dual-process Tenacious Goal Pursuit (TGP) and Flexible Goal Adjustment (FGA) theory as proposed by Brandstatdter and colleagues.

As per this framework, we all strive towards goals, but only goals that are meaningful (say goals which align with our self-identity) and attainable (we have self-efficacy beliefs and can figure out strategies to achieve the goals) lead to well-being. A goal that we find meaningful and are highly committed to, but which becomes unattainable due to either external circumstances or our internal capacities, may lead to depression.The depression, and the helplessness and rumination that accompany it, may paradoxically have the function of decreasing our commitment to the goal and releasing ourselves from that unattainable goal.

And here is where the TGP and FGA theory comes to the rescue. In view of internal or external obstacles, that is when you are not able to make progress towards meaningful goals, you may either try to change the situations or your actions to ensure that they are congruent to the goals and would thus be demonstrating an adaptive process of assimilation (not to be confused with Piaget’s use of assimilation) also known as Tenacious Goal Pursuit (TGP), or you may adjust your goals and ambitions to reflect the situations / your capacities using the process of accommodation also known as Flexible Goal Adjustment (FGA).

Now, lets backtrack a little and reflect on the many routes to happiness: some say its all in your head- that you just need to change your mindset/ perception of events and you can be happier;  others say that happiness is dependent on your situations and the actions that you take- you can and should cultivate happiness by activities and by changing your circumstances. Like all debates, like Nature-Nurture, the answer probably lies in the interaction and in-between. Haidt has famously claimed that happiness lies in-between, and I concur.

Similarly, sadness or depression may lie in your flexibility and tenacity of goal pursuits – while showing rigidity to a goal and not giving up may lead to sadness and depression, giving up too early or not being tenacious when circumstances could have been changed, may also lead to regret and sadness.

Bring Back My Happiness

Bring Back My Happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its important to note that changing circumstances/ TGP etc are active processes; meanwhile changing mindset/ FGA are relatively passive processes, in that they happen in the background and not so much consciously.

That brings me to my major thesis: Depression is a disorder characterized by inability to use the adaptive process of FGA optimally. To me, Depression is a disorder of Behavior related to the Passive polarity of the ABCD Behavioral dimension. When one has a goal, to which one is committed, but is no longer attainable (and this may include an irreparable loss like bereavement ) then most people will use Flexible Goal Adjustment to come out of that state. However, the people with depression may be less able to use FGA and may remain committed to unattainable goals.

One of the evidence that comes to mind is, and for this you have to refer to my previous post about personality disorders and emotions,  that the passive pole of Behavior dimension in ABCD model is also associated with Dysthemic and borderline personalities and hypothesized to be associated with the Conscentiousness trait. Now, It does seem that there is some evidence that highly conscientious people who have high commitment to goals, also are more likely to get depressed following setbacks or adverse life events. This makes immense theoretical sense too.

One can also examine the Active pole of the Behavior dimension in ABCD model to gain equivalent insights. As I had mentioned in my last post, that is associated with personality disorders of Histroinic and Hypomanic personality disorders and likely associated with the trait Impulsive Sensation Seeking. Extending this joy/ happiness related dimension, all these are also likely to be associated with the active process of Tenacious Goal Pursuit; here it is instructive to note that a high score on Impulsive Sensation Seeking may prevent TGP from happening as the person may keep moving from one activity to the other; and extremes of this may lead to manic behavior. The high scores on Impulsive Sensation seeking leading to less TGP leading to full-blown mania, is similar in nature to high scores on Conscientiousness leading to less FGA leading to full-blown depression.

To me, this seems a novel and fruitful approach to think about and conceptualize depression- as an inability to give up goals that are no loner feasible. If we focus more on this aspect, perhaps we need to augment our talking therapies of CBT etc that focus on negative self-talk and also introduce safe spaces and experiences whereby people can indulge in Flexible Goal Adjustment and give up on goals that are no longer feasible and replace them with other more meaningful and attainable goals.

The Four Major Goals of Life revisited

I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.

A Good Dog Can Bring Happiness to Your Life

A Good Dog Can Bring Happiness to Your Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.

Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.

To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.

Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.

Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.

How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:

  1. Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
  2. Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
  3. Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
  4. Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)

Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values )  needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between.  If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.

Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!

Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful  relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone-   this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .

in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!

PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.

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