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.
Hari writes that depression is often a result of unmet needs. It can be a signal that something is amiss in one’s life landscape. What did he discover and use for his own self-healing? He discusses contributors to and potential solutions for depression in six areas.
Meaningful Work and a 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.
Hari describes a case of a man doing mind-numbing, 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 use 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 workflow and activities, and when they are recognized as individuals making a contribution. Empowering employees is key. Over 100 years ago, unions helped empower employees across the U.S. by bringing about new labor laws (e.g., shorter hours, a shorter workweek, no child labor).
Status and Respect
Inequality in social status leads to mental distress. Societies that are more equal tend to have less depression. But in individualistic cultures, individuals are encouraged to “puff up their egos” to get along and compete. Taking steps to let go of ego, through practices like meditation or contemplation, can be helpful.
Loneliness has spread across the world in industrialized societies. Neighbors nod but don’t converse with their neighbors. People “do their own thing.” Two thirds of Americans reportedly have no confidant. Research by John Cacioppo and others indicates that loneliness precedes depression. 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.
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, so you have fewer “flow” experiences of engaged focus. Third, materialism doesn’t meet human basic needs for connection. But social pressure, largely from advertising, 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. Try to avoid advertising. Think about your deeper values and let those govern your life rather than what advertisers tell you to value.
Shame from Trauma
Research on adverse childhood experiences 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, likely has the greatest impact on depression in adulthood.
Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” ask “What went wrong in your life?” Therapists, teachers, and friends can use this flipped approach.
The 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 Messages
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 or living your life.
Overall, we need connections. Restoring connections can come from individual efforts, but they can also come from the 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.