Study results from researchers in the UK suggest that depressed people are not ambitionless, and do report having set goals, but that these goals are more vague than those of non-depressed control subjects:
Compared to non-depressed control participants, depressed individuals’ goals tended to be less specific and more abstract, for example ‘to be happy’, rather than ‘to improve my time running the local 10 km race’.. A similar reduced level of specificity was found when reasons for achieving or not reaching personal goals were analyzed. There were no significant differences in the number of goals and reasons, or the kinds of goals provided by depressed and non-depressed participants.
So, it may be helpful for mental health professionals to encourage depressed people to clarify their goals and formulate small, manageable steps towards reaching them. This would hopefully reduce the overwhelm associated with huge and overwhelming goals. Although the study doesn’t show that big, vague goals are the root cause of depression, it seems easily possible that such goals exacerbate feelings of hopelessness associated with depression, and make the climb out of depression more difficult. More research is needed on these counts.
These findings also kind of vindicate the predictable life coach-style advice to break down large goals into smaller chunks, and to continuously identify your next actionable steps (however small). Depressed people have vague goals without manageable next steps, and they largely fail in accomplishing the things they want to accomplish. Non-depressed people don’t always accomplish their goals, but they have a much better shot, and it seems to start from the ways they think about those goals in the first place.
At the end of the day, recognize that we’re cognitively limited creatures. Whether you’re depressed or not, don’t shoot your success in the foot by mentally handing yourself only a bunch of aspirational vagueness to work with.