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Coping with Unhappiness, Depression, and
Low Motivation

Proven methods to improve energy, motivation, and happiness

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Coping with Unhappiness, Depression, Apathy, and Low Motivation  

Tom G. Stevens PhD  



Underlying Causes and Solutions to Depression, Apathy, Low Motivation, and Other Underarousal Emotions

Free SHAQ Questionnaire to help you find underlying causes of habitual or frequent depression, unhappiness, or low motivation.

 Grief Reactions

Some free online Self-Help readings to help you understand these emotions and how to cope with them

Other Internet Links


What causes depression?  The immediate cause may be that we have (1) given up on some important goal (e.g., felt failure), (2) had some important source of goal fulfillment removed from us (e.g., someone left us), (3) be in a state with no important goals on our mind (e.g., completed a goal or become uncertain about what we want), or (4) be underchallenged and understimulated by our situation.

People who experience depression habitually often have one or more of the following characteristics: (1) a negative or underdeveloped philosophy of life, (2) low self-esteem, (3) a bias toward negative thinking or "deprivation thinking" , (4) expectations that are unrealistically high, (5) low assertiveness or interpersonal skills, (6) low emotional coping skills, and/or (7) beliefs that cause too much self-sacrifice and self-deprivation.

To overcome temporary depression,  one can look at each area of one's life (career, relationships, health, recreation, finances, etc.) and identify the problem areas.  Then find a way of either getting more fulfillment in that area by developing a realistic plan to meet your goals OR accept the reality of the situation and find new meaning by committing  yourself to new (or revised) goals that will lead to happiness, and by developing plans that you feel confident will lead to satisfying those new goals.  The 'Serenity Prayer' used by 12-step programs asks for the power to be able to change that which I can change, accept that which I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.  That is powerful advice used by millions because it deals with one of the main underlying causes of depression (and all negative emotions)--our expectations. 

 When Victor Frankl was in a concentration camp, he had to find goals that he could meet there.  He found ways to help other prisoners and survive.  Some of his free time was spent leading a rich fantasy life that brought happiness.  So bad circumstances do not preclude the possibility of happiness.  You can choose to be happy even in the worst of circumstances. Look at some of the links below to help you deal with specific situations where you are feeling sad, depressed, apathetic, burned out, or unmotivated.

To overcome more habitual (chronic) depression, then look at some of the factors described above and honestly assess yourself on these factors, and develop a self-development plan for overcoming them.  Counseling (see below) can be an important part of that plan, as can reading self-help books, taking self-development classes, and exploring the recommended Internet sites. Some people may require medication, but that should be determined jointly by a psychiatrist and your own observation of what helps you.

Also, if you have not already done so, take the SHAQ CARES assessment that is a part of this website (click here) to see which factors may be causing your depression.



Table of Major Causes and Solutions for Habitual Depression


Do you feel depressed, sad, low motivation, low energy, tired, apathetic, or helpless? Are you not looking forward to anything?


                  Being in a low internal stimulation, low challenge state causes low performance, low learning, and low emotional arousal. 

=>To learn more about the basic causes of depression, learn the Harmonious Functioning Model in Chapter 7


1. UNDERSTIMULATING SITUATIONS--often an overly constricted situation caused by withdrawing from an overwhelming one. Too simple or routine. (To understand why this is so important--see chapter 7)

2. LOW GOALS and EXPECTATIONS--goallessness. A vacuum--often caused by giving up other goals--or even by accomplishing other goals. (See goallessness above)

3. POORLY MATCHED ABILITIES--Including the following:  (See chapter 7 to understand why these are important)

 >TOO LOW relevant knowledge, skills, or other resources (perceived as necessary to accomplish original goals ). Often fear creating new goals from fear of failing at those too because of low abilities.

 >TOO HIGH abilities for resultant goalless state. All parts of ourselves need to be used and functioning harmoniously to create optimal arousal and happiness. Disuse causes underarousal, atrophy, and eventual death of part of ourselves (physical organ systems as well as psychological systems).

  • Anxiety, feeling overwhelmed + Lack ability to deal with situation See this chapter 8  plus s
  • Lack of involvement, tiredness, depression, etc. (Depression causes you to feel tired and makes normally appealing incentives seem meaningless or not worth the effort--you must overcome this feeling to reduce depression. ) See  (See goallessness above) 
  • Conflict or Attention to higher priority concerns (See this chapter section on Conflict and Harmony).

BACKGROUND CAUSES (predisposing one to depression) INCLUDE:

1. TOO HIGH GOALS & EXPECTATIONS--for one's resources & abilities (See goals and expectations section in Chapter 8)

2. LOSS--Such as death, abandonment, etc. (See values in chapter 9).

3. NEGATIVE SELF VIEWS. Lack of general self-worth or self-confidence (See chapter 5 on Self-Esteem).

4. NEGATIVE WORLD VIEWS or views of other people. These can cause us to exaggerate the difficulties involved in meeting our goals (See world view chapter 4).

5. EXTERNAL CONTROL. Giving control to others undermines control of emotions and lives; shoulds, rule-bound, codependent, etc. (See chapter 6 on Internal-External Control).

6. NEGATIVE COGNITIVE STYLES--negative bias, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, "always--never" or "black-white" thinking in extremes (Appendix D).

7. LOW ASSERTIVENESS, INTERPERSONAL SKILLS (See internal control chapter 6).

8. SELF-DEPRIVATION, self-denial (See section in Chapter 8)).

9. LOW SELF-MANAGEMENT SKILLS--Poor abilities for self-organization, decision-making, time management, etc. ( See self-management chapter 9).

10. LOW EMOTIONAL COPING SKILLS (See  Chapter 8) and much of book).

11. LIFE AREA or TASK-RELATED ABILITIES too low--lack knowledge, skills, or resources.
                     (See section on self-confidence and assessing life skills in chapter 5).


 Factors that predispose someone toward depression

 Many of us struggle for many years to overcome depression. At one end of the spectrum of prolonged depression are people whose depression is mild--they just consider themselves "not very happy." At the other end are people who are often severely depressed and frequently consider suicide. Has this been a problem for you or someone you care about? What are some of the factors that predispose someone to feel depressed over a long period of time?

First, remember that these factors work by causing the person to frequently be in a state of underchallenge and underarousal. These factors keep them from harmonious functioning. Important values and parts of themselves are not being engaged at a challenging, fun level or they are not being satisfied at all. The person may often be in a goal-less, "meaningless" mental state. These factors are dealt in other chapters, but this is the only place that they are summarized as a whole. I will briefly discuss them and their solutions. Study the depression causes table.

1. Low internal control, coping skills, or assertiveness. People who are habitually depressed often lack internal control and assertiveness. Often assertion training can help them not only become more successful with others, but can help them get out of their depression (see internal control chapter). People who are habitually depressed also often lack self-direction, initiative, or self-management skills (see chapter self-management chapter). Emotional coping skills--such as those taught in this chapter and book--is another area frequently lacking in people who are habitually depressed.

2. Negative world views and self views often cause depression. Depression may not be so much that you are really so inadequate or have too high expectations. It may be caused by how you view yourself or the world. If you view yourself as bad or stupid no matter what you do, then you will feel depression. If you view the world (or other people) as so negative, hostile, or different from you, that you "don't have a chance" to succeed, then you will feel depressed. If these are problems, see the chapters of world view and self-esteem.

3.Too much self-denial can cause depression. A woman I saw was a cardiac nurse. She knew the signs of a heart attack. She started getting those signs--such as excruciating chest pains--three days before her daughter's wedding. Yet she did not tell anyone or see a doctor; because she knew it was so bad, he would hospitalize her. She feared it would disrupt her daughter's wedding. While she was dancing at the reception, her chest pains were so bad, she thought she would probably die right there. That is self-denial--putting her own life at risk to make sure her daughter's wedding was undisturbed. What would you do in a similar circumstance?

When we make choices that deny important parts of ourselves--important biological needs, values, or goals--it can cause those parts to feel depressed and lower our overall motivation and happiness (even when other parts may feel happy). People may habitually choose self-denial when they put all their energy into meeting long-term goals such as working exceptionally long hours to get a college degree or obtain career success.

Another cause of habitual self-denial is a belief system that puts too high a value on sacrificing ones own values and happiness for others. Many parents teach their children that their children's needs are not important or teach them that they "don't deserve" to be happy. These children may grow up believing a dark cloud follows them; they are so "bad" or incompetent that they don't deserve anything good. Therefore, they automatically feel guilty whenever they think about something fun for themselves--and often choose to not pursue such "selfish" goals. The result is a life of self-deprivation and depression.

What if you are one of these people? What do you do about it? The solution is to confront the original belief systems that cause the self-denial and strengthen belief systems (such as the Higher Self) that support personal happiness (see "codependence" section of internal control chapter). Focus on areas of greatest deprivation (sex? fun? play? artistic interests? spending money on yourself? taking time to be alone? etc.) Then make practical goals and plans for leading a more personally rewarding life. Schedule these new activities into your daily, and weekly, and monthly plans.

Return to beginning

4. Underlying fears and habitual avoidance behavior. A person is lonely because she avoids her fear of rejection. An "underemployed" worker feels trapped because he avoids the anxiety of looking for a job. A person stays in a controlling, restrictive relationship because she avoids dealing with her fear of being alone or taking care of herself.

A major cause of depression is avoidance of situations or avoidance of tasks that are too challenging and anxiety producing. Perhaps we have "good reasons" for avoidance. Perhaps we have experienced pain from those situations. The underlying factors causing the depression are (1)the inability to cope with the overchallenging situation, (2) the resultant anxiety, and (3) our choice to avoid the situation.

We may blame the other person for our depression, when in fact our emotions are primarily our own responsibility. We choose to remain depressed because it seems safer than replacing or converting the current situation that is depressing. If you are depressed because you are not facing overwhelming situations, then use the methods described earlier for dealing with overarousal situations.  
=>To deal with underlying fears FIRST, IDENTIFY THEM
(See Chapter 2 on the Self-Exploration Process),  
SECOND, develop an acceptable PLAN of how to deal with the worst possible outcome AND develop a new way of thinking about it (See Chapter 4 on dealing with worst fears).

5. Alternating between very high and very low goals. Some people tend to alternate between high arousal and depression--an extreme is manic-depressive episodes. These people may experience success (or other positive input) that causes them to get overly optimistic or idealistic. Then they set unrealistically high goals and expectations. When they try to accomplish these lofty goals, they feel overwhelmed by the size of the task.

To avoid the anxiety, they may begin avoiding responsibilities or quit. Completely giving up their sky-high goals immediately lowers their goals too much. They go from extremely high goals to no goals. Becoming "goal-less" shuts down their arousal. The result is apathy and depression. Their depression ends when they find new lofty goals; and the cycle from exhilaration to depression starts all over again. To prevent this cycle, first set realistic, moderately difficult goals. Then revise goals (using the LAPDS principles) to keep yourself motivated when the going gets tough.
=> Go to the section discussing how to set goals and expectations that will help you control your depression and anxiety from Chapter 8: LAPDS method etc.

Return to beginning

6. We can feel depressed after accomplishing goals. People are often puzzled why they feel depressed after they accomplish their goals. If they have no new goals to replace the accomplished goals, they may be in a "goal-less" state similar to when people have "given up." Finding new optimally challenging goals adds "meaning" to life and re-sparks enthusiasm.

Challenging and involving activities give mental and physical energy. Whatever the original cause of depression, while we are in a state of depression, we are actually underchallenged and understimulated. Therefore, if we want to feel more aroused, more energetic, more motivated, and happier, then we can do so by increasing the complexity and challenge in the immediate situation we are facing right now.

Even if we don't feel like doing something initially, it is very likely that any episode that engages a higher level of mental and physical involvement will help reduce our depression. That is why activities like sports, dancing, biking, crossword puzzles, TV, music, talking with friends, or solving a complex problem can have an immediate positive effect upon depression.

These activities may only have temporary effects if they do not cope with the underlying causes of the depression. However, if you are having problems with too much depression, unhappiness, boredom, or "tiredness," try building these energy-producing activities into your schedule. Filling your life with these positive stimulating activities can give you energy for coping with the bigger problems and (when integrated into your lifestyle) can have powerful, permanent effects on your happiness as well.


Grief Reactions To Loss

Grief reactions usually involve a lot of sadness and feelings of depression and low energy or motivation.  They are similar to other "goallessness" feelings because a person experiencing grief has a great sense of loss (through death, separation, rejection, failure, or other types of loss).  Important values and goals are not and/or will not be fulfilled as a result of the loss--at least temporarily.  The only way to really get over or get past the loss is to either find new ways of satisfying the same or similar values/goals/interests/acitivites or find new values/goals/interests/activities that are satisfying.  Ideally, the new replacement(s) should meet the same important, core-underlying life values and goals as closely as possible.  Sometimes several activities, people, or other substitutes will combine to meet many of the underlying values that were not being fulfilled after the loss.

In addition, with any loss of positives, there is usually a loss of some negatives.  No situation, activity, or person is perfect!  Sometimes the replacement(s) in the new life are better than the old.  After all, you may have more knowledge of what you want now, and resources to get what you want than you did previously.

SHAQ Questionnaire: 
To take a self-scoring questionnaire that may help you understand some of the factors related to depression, go my companion web site and complete the Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ) at  [It takes 30-90 minutes to complete.]


Self-Help Reading to Help Understand and Cope with Underarousal EmotionsUnhappiness, Low Motivation, and Depression

These readings deal with EACH of the FACTORS causing depression and other underarousal emotions mentioned above:

(1) A negative or underdeveloped philosophy of life 

(2) Low self-esteem 

(3) A bias toward negative thinking, deprivation thinking, or expecting too much of others.

(4) Self-Expectations that are unrealistically high

(5) Low assertiveness or interpersonal skills

(6) Low emotional coping skills

(7) Beliefs that cause too much self-sacrifice and self-deprivation.




Additional Internet References:

**** American Psychological Association:
Mood Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Suicide

***World Health Organization Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression information about depression

**American Psychological Association self-help brochures

*** National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association 

***AAS - American Association of Suicidology

***AFSP - American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 

***Virtual Pamphlet Collection of the University of Chicago--SEE DEPRESSION
Free online pamphlets about relationships and many other topics written by psychologists and other counselors from University Counseling Centers across U.S.A.

Self-Esteem, Internal Control, and Assertivenes

Low self-esteem and low Internal Control and Assertiveness are often part of the root causes of depression.

Go to help sections on Self-Esteem, Internal Control, Assertion Training

Return to Index


The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

Email feedback to Dr. Stevens I welcome your comments about my web site or any of its contents.           

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California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
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