The Gavin's Village Blog


How To Overcome Despair

despair health Feb 07, 2024

We all face challenges in life that bring us down for a short time - maybe not being selected for an opportunity we wanted, losing a sports game, or the car breaking down at an inconvenient time. Yet, we bounce back from those events after they pass. However, when someone experiences struggle so deep that they are unable to feel a sense of optimism, or “see the light at the end of the tunnel,” that’s when it could be classified as despair. 

In this blog, we’ll explore despair and ways to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenge of healing from it. 


What does despair mean?


What does it mean to despair? It’s a complex feeling. Despair, a profound sense of hopelessness, often manifests in response to life's challenges, setbacks, or prolonged adversity. To truly understand despair, it’s important to put it in proper context. Psychologists and researchers put despair and hope on opposite sides of a spectrum: “Events that indicate that our efforts will succeed arouse hope. Events that suggest that our efforts are futile foster despair. We experience hope and despair, not at the beginning or end, but in the midst of our long-term efforts” (Nesse, 1999). Despair arises not just in reaction to challenging or sad events, but from a feeling that things will never get better, no matter what we do. 

Powerlessness is an important distinction between a feeling of sadness and despair. For example, it’s expected that someone will feel sad when an elderly relative passes away peacefully from an age-related illness, but over time they heal from their grief. True despair might come about if someone lives through a scenario like war or famine and continually experiences adversity and loss and begins to feel as if the situation will never resolve, and they will never feel happiness again. 

The root causes of despair can come from external circumstances and be felt by many in a group: “Despair can arise in, spread through, and affect social contexts, including social networks and communities. Social context–level despair could compound individual-level despair” (Shanahan, et al. 2019). Despair can feed on despair. One clear example of this is the coronavirus pandemic. It brought about despair for many as we collectively struggled with the lack of social connection, fear of illness, and uncertainty about when the pandemic would end. 

Another subset of psychologists position despair’s root cause as regret about past life choices, which is often seen by older adults facing their own mortality. In this scenario, despair often comes from, “difficulties in accepting and finding wholeness in one’s own life path and often comes with high levels of regret” and those who experience despair are more likely to struggle with coping or adjusting to new environments (van der Kaap-Deeder et al. 2022). 

Whether despair arises for an individual due to hopelessness or regret, the signs of someone feeling despair can be similar. Mental signs of despair might feel like a sense that things will never improve, and one will never feel happiness. Emotional signs include “feelings of excessive sadness, irritability, hostility, loneliness, anhedonia, and apathy” (Shanahan, et al. 2019). Spiritual signs might feel like a lack of connection to a community, lacking purpose, or feeling left behind by a creator or higher power. 

Despair has important impacts on our mental health. Depression and despair are linked. Despair can lead to substance abuse or suicide. If you are feeling a sense of despair, it is imperative to find the strength to make progress, though it can feel insurmountable. 

However, it’s critical to work toward overcoming despair as it is paramount for mental and physical well-being. Recognizing that despair is not a permanent state, individuals can find strength in fostering resilience, seeking social support, and engaging in self-care.

How to overcome despair 

Overcoming despair is a journey, often resulting from the transformative power of connection. The first step is seeking support from friends and family as the warmth of understanding and empathy can provide solace in times of darkness. Sharing one's struggles with trusted loved ones brings about a sense of belonging by reminding individuals that they are not alone in their challenges.

Additionally, support groups offer a communal space where shared experiences create a network of encouragement and shared coping strategies. If you’re looking for a professionally guided online support community, join Gavin’s Village, where you can connect with others on their own mental, emotional, and spiritual journeys.

Professional help, through therapy and counseling, provides a structured and expert-guided approach to understanding and addressing the root causes of despair. The trained ears of therapists offer a safe haven for self-expression, facilitating healing and the development of coping mechanisms. Professionals may recommend medication, when appropriate, for those who could benefit from it. 

Concurrently with connecting with others or seeking professional help, taking steps to grow your mental, emotional, and spiritual health individually are important to build resilience. These could include finding meaning or purpose in new ways and cultivating gratitude for the things you have in your life. Research shows, “achievement goals are positively correlated with life satisfaction” so even setting a goal to make progress toward one’s purpose can help bring about satisfaction (Wang et al. 2017). Overcoming despair involves personal growth, so set a small goal and work toward it. Then, set another goal and work toward that one. Record your achievements and small wins. Repeat the process and reflect on how you feel.

Finding purpose in despair

In the depths of despair, we may question why we experienced the things that brought about the sense of hopelessness or regret. Growing from despair isn’t about finding a reason for tragedy or our pain or grief, but about finding a purpose to propel us forward in our healing.

When one has a purpose, that can be a beacon of light to help us build resilience. This transformation could emerge from the pursuit of passions and hobbies that ignite the soul. Engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment start as a welcome distraction from the emotional pain we feel, and over time allow us to feel a sense of accomplishment and self-discovery.

Another powerful avenue to find purpose in despair is by being of service to others. Extending a helping hand creates connections, instills a sense of purpose, and amplifies our connection to others in our community. Service is an excellent way to cultivate gratitude as it allows us to gain a new perspective on what we do have in our lives. If despair comes about from loss, serving a cause that mattered deeply to the person who passed is a beautiful way to honor their life. Serving others might look like volunteering your time, reaching out to a friend or family member who needs connection, or picking up litter to clean up your local community. Start small and build a sense of satisfaction, then build from there.


For those facing despair, it’s important to know things can improve, even if past actions have not yet brought about a resolution to the circumstances you may be in now. Your feelings are real, and the future is uncertain, but there are great things ahead. Overcoming despair is a journey, and not a linear one. Some days are easier while others are harder. As despair fades, the pursuit of purpose propels you forward. 



Nesse, R. M. (1999). The Evolution of Hope and Despair. Social Research, 66(2). 

Shanahan, L., Hill, S. N., Gaydosh, L. M., Steinhoff, A., Costello, E. J., Dodge, K. A., Harris, K. M.,
& Copeland, W. E. (2019). Does Despair Really Kill? A Roadmap for an Evidence-Based
Answer. American Journal of Public Health. 

Van der Kaap-Deeder, J., Vermote, B., Waterschoot, J., Soenens, B., Morbée, S., &
Vansteenkiste, M. (2022). The role of ego integrity and despair in older adults’ well-being
during the COVID-19 crisis: The mediating role of need-based experiences. European
Journal of Ageing, 19(1).

Wang, W., Li, J., Sun, G., Cheng, Z., & Zhang, X. (2017). Achievement goals and life satisfaction:
The mediating role of perception of successful agency and the moderating role of
emotion reappraisal. Psicologia, Reflexão e Crítica. 

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