On Derailment and Mental Health
In Hunting Magic Eels I describe what I call "the Ache." Borrowing from David Kelsey, I make the observation that meaning and purpose in life must be grounded "eccentrically" in some transcendent ground beyond myself, a ground that is immune to fickle fortune. If I lack this eccentric grounding, purpose in life becomes vulnerable to ups and downs related to the material outcomes of my life situation. This fragility in what makes life meaningful is one source of the Ache in the modern world.
In a 2018 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Anthony Burrow, Patrick Hill, Kaylin Ratner, and Thomas Fullwer-Rowell describe this phenomenon as "derailment." As they describe:
As individuals reflect on who they are and who they have been, there is no guarantee that they will discern continuity. In fact, some individuals may be unable to reconcile discrepancies between their current and past identities, resulting in self-perceptions marked by temporal discordance and deviation in course. We define this phenomenon as derailment...
They then go on to describe three aspects of derailment:
At its core, we believe that derailment represents a limitation in reconciling the pathway by which a previously held identity has become a current one. We theorize that a sense of derailment coincides with a cascade of beliefs that influence how we perceive our sense of self and its stability across time. First, derailment requires that individuals believe that a once-meaningful identity has been extinguished and, in some cases, replaced with a different identity. That is, highly derailed individuals note a clear difference between their past and present selves. Second, derailed individuals may believe that a previous life direction can no longer be pursued, and that their motivations for pursuing past aims have changed substantially or are no longer relevant. When derailment is most apparent, individuals may sense a significant change in direction and feel they are no longer able to reach the destination for which they once set course. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we believe that derailment is experienced as a result of failure to draw meaningful connections between temporally distinct identities. In other words, people who score highly on derailment may have difficulty imagining how who they once were connects to the person they are today. When individuals endorse these three beliefs, we expect the experience of derailment to be greatest, and negative psychological consequences to be most evident.
Regarding that last aspect of derailment, its negative effect upon well-being, at the end of the study the authors summarize their findings:
As expected, derailment was reliably associated with greater symptoms of depression, anxiety, perceived stress, and lower subjective well-being.
When it comes to meaning and purpose in life, the point to be observed is that, of course, any of us can name our "purpose" as flowing out of our own self-selected goals. This "purpose" can always be reliably conjured, over and over again, as often as we'd like. So it would be silly to say that only faith can provide us purpose in life. The point, rather, isn't about having a purpose, but vulnerability to derailment and its mental health sequelae: chronic, life-long vulnerability to "depression, anxiety, perceived stress, and lower subjective well-being."
To be sure, maybe this is simply our lot in life, and we just have to deal with it as best we can. But my point here today is merely descriptive in citing some psychology research. Derailment, and our chronic vulnerability in the face of it, is an illustration of the mental health consequences we must face when purpose and meaning in life cannot be eccentrically grounded.