Having modest goals to look forward to can help you through rough days. But make them achievable, imminent and specific.
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Were you to visit a psychologist or psychotherapist for help with depression, he or she might first ask you to complete one of the mental health profession’s standard tests – perhaps the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). This way at least you’d begin the recovery process with a line in the sand to remind you of where you started from.
The first version of the BDI was developed over fifty years, and it’s a well-validated, much-respected measure. Its 21 multiple-choice items include the following, which I think is particularly pertinent to today’s post. You’re asked which of the following best describes how you’ve felt over the last seven days:
1. I am not particularly discouraged about the future.
2. I feel discouraged about the future.
3. I feel I have nothing to look forward to.
4. I feel that the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve.
Of course, the statements are ordered in such a way that number one would probably be selected by someone with little or no depression, while number four might be the choice of someone feeling pretty hopeless.
So when I suggest that having goals to look forward to can play an important part in your overall happiness, you don’t just have to take my word for it: psychologists say a deficit in this area can be one of the leading signs of depression.
Of course, if you’re not careful it’s an area that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know that when my own mood is low, I lack the motivation to set goals and make plans in the first place, making it likely that my low mood inexorably leads to little to look forward to, and therefore an even *lower* mood.
Fear not, though, all is not lost. Over the years I’ve learned the hard way that the only goals and plans I’ll make on a bad day are trivially modest ones. But a trivially modest goal or plan is better than no goal or plan at all.
I think the best small goals for spectacularly awful days need to fulfill three criteria:
1. They need to be pretty easily achievable, with just a modicum of effort.
2. They need to be pretty imminent – it’s easier to look forward to something later on today or this week than it is to get excited about some outcome far into the future.
3. They need to be specific. Define exactly what you’re looking forward to.
So, on a bad day:
Good: At 6pm this evening I’m going to walk to the store to treat myself to a copy of Hello magazine. (Well, you get my drift.)
Less-good: Sometime in the next two years I’m going to learn to play the banjo.
In short, if things are looking good for you right now, by all means plan away, but if they’re not, do please at least think about setting yourself the tiniest of goals.
Having something to look forward to is better than having nothing to look forward to. Psychologists agree.