During the Korean War, the Chinese government systematically tried to brainwash the U.S. POWs. Their methods included deprivation and torture, and the captives suffered tremendously. At one point, in one of the prison camps, three-fourths of the POWs had died. Things were incredibly bleak for the rest of them, and they were all feeling desperate and hopeless.
Then one man said to the others, "We've got to stay alive, we've got to let others know about the horrors of Communism. We've got to live to bring back the armies and fight these evil people. Communism must not win!"
This was a turning point for every man there because their meaningless struggle was transformed into a mission. Simply staying alive against the odds was their goal. Their despair was turned into resolve. Their hopelessness was turned into determination. And their death rate went way down.
Speaking of his experience in a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl wrote, "As we said before, any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal...Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost."
That's not just true in a concentration camp. It's true for all of us. Researchers at New York State Psychiatric Institute asked an unusual question of suicidal people. Rather than asking what makes them want to die, the researchers asked what makes them want to live?
They studied eighty-four people suffering major depression trying to determine why thirty-nine of them had never attempted to kill themselves. The study revealed that age, sex, religious persuasion or education level did not predict who would attempt suicide. But not having a reason to live predicted it. The depressed patients who perceived life as more worth living were less likely to attempt to kill themselves. In other words, people with a reason to live were more likely to live. Sometimes it takes a scientific study to prove the obvious.
Having a goal is very important. It's not just a nice thing. It's vital. It's vital for survival in tough situations and it's vital if you simply want to be in a good mood more often.
So get yourself a "concrete assignment that demands fulfillment" (see A Good Cause Can Cause a Good Mood for more on that). Look for something that fires you up, that you think is needed, that you feel is important, and that you can do something about.
If someone has no purpose at all, a small goal is a big improvement. But as your level of mental health increases, there comes a time when a full-on mission is called for.
You can still watch movies. You can still spend time conversing with your spouse. Walk in the woods. Go on vacation. But your definite purpose, your concrete assignment, is always there to give you a sense of purpose and meaning to your existence. And that will improve your mood tremendously.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.