Johann Hari uncovers several ways to get your life back
If you are depressed, check for these missing aspects in your life and consider ways to meet those needs.
In his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari explores his own challenges with depression and takes a walk through research findings that give insights into remedies for a cure, outside of meds.
Genes and Brain Changes: Genes are inert without experience that “turns them on.” You don’t become depressed because of your genes. You become depressed because of your experience. What kinds of experiences?
Hari finds out that depression is often a result of unmet needs. It’s a signal that something is amiss in one’s life landscape. The biochemical imbalance that has been correlated with depression is actually typically caused by psychological and social issues. What did he discover and use for his own self-healing? He discusses six forms of disconnection that contribute to depression.
Meaningful Work and Hopeful, Secure Future: In recent decades, work for many people has become insecure. There is no sense of security or ability to plan for the future. Universal basic incomes have been tried and have positive outcomes.
He describes a case of a man doing mindnumbing, boring, unrecognized work—shaking cans of paint at a paint shop day after day—and feeling unable to grow or make a difference in the world. One day, a friend offered him a blue pill, Oxycontin. It numbed the feelings of hopelessness. Soon he started to used it regularly because “it seemed to dissolve the conflict between his desire to make a difference and the reality of his life” (p. 63). When he eventually got over his addiction, he went back to a life of drudgery.
Employees are happier when they have more control over their work flow and activities, and when they are recognized as individuals making a contribution. Empowering employees is key. Over a 100 years ago through democratic reforms, unions helped empower employees across the US by bringing about new labor laws (e.g., shorter hours, shorter work week, no child labor).
Status and Respect: Inequality in social status leads to mental distress. Societies that are more equal have less depression. But in individualistic cultures, individuals are encouraged to “puff up their egos” to get along and compete.
Take steps to let go of ego, through practices like meditation or contemplation.
Social Sharing: Loneliness has spread across the world in industrialized societies (perhaps especially in the US and UK). Neighbors nod but don’t converse with their neighbors. People “do their own thing.” Two thirds of Americans have no confidant. Research studies by John Cacioppo and others show that loneliness precedes depression. Even when people only are reminded of lonely times in their lives, they become more depressed. And it’s not that hanging out with or communicating with other people is the solution. You can still feel lonely. What is needed is the sharing of experience.
Happiness is social. So ask yourself, with whom do you share joy? Laughter? Sadness?
Meaningful Values: Focusing on money, wealth and possessions has for millennia been considered a path to unhappiness. You can never get enough. Tim Kasser, profiled by Hari, calls this a junk value. It’s a path to depression for several reasons. First, it can poison relationships because of the emphasis on superficial looks or assets. Second, it puts you into a performance mindset—how you look to others—and so you have fewer “flow” experiences of engaged focus. Third, materialism doesn’t meet human basic needs for connection. The social pressures, mainly from advertising that makes us feel inadequate and needing a particular product—which we learn to internalize—trains us to feel a sense of scarcity.
You can pull yourself out of the environments that reinforce materialistic values. Choose environments and friends carefully. Avoid advertising. Think about your deeper values and let those govern your life rather than what advertisers tell you to value.
Shame from Trauma: Adverse Childhood, ACEs, experiences research has shown that the more abuse, violence exposure and divorce experienced in childhood, the more likely you are to have health problems in adulthood. Emotional abuse in childhood, being treated cruelly by caregivers, has the greatest impact on depression in adulthood due to psychological damage.
Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” ask “What went wrong in your life?” Therapists, teachers, and friends can use this flipped approach.
Natural World: Connecting to the natural world is a salve for depression. “Faced with a natural landscape, you have a sense that you and your concern are very small, and the world is very big—and that sensation can shrink the ego down to a manageable size” (p. 129).
Therapeutic horticulture involves finding what is meaningful in one’s life and adding that in. Perhaps it’s gardening or visiting a park.
The take home message: Depression is not a moral failing. It is not innate. It is not a defect. It is not meaningless. It is a reaction to the way you are experiencing life (babies) or living your life.
Overall, we need reconnection. Restoring connections can come from individual efforts but they can also come from community and societal efforts to respect individuals and provide for basic needs.
Hari, J. (2018). Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions. New York: Bloomsbury.