December 01, 2019 -

Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope

Johann Hari

Mental Health, Depression, Anxiety

You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.

Lost Connections is a challenge to the classic story any of us with depression and anxiety have heard. Go to a doctor. Get anti-depression pills. Become normal. Johann doesn't completely remove that fact that medical anti-depressants work, they do; just for a smaller subset of humans than is currently being prescribed. We live in the loneliest age. The internet has made us shelter away from society. During a study participants were asked, "In a crisis, how many close friends could you call?" Years ago the most common answer was five. Today it is none. In Lost Connections, Johann travels across the world to talk to leading psychologists and researchers to figure out the leading causes for depression and anxiety. He came across nine symptoms that may be the leading factors for making us (society) depressed and anxious.

Disconnection from Meaningful Work

For many of us, work is 8 hours a week day--1/4th of the day. It's no wonder that a lack of autonomy in our jobs, and a lack of real purpose causes depression. Johann mentions that between 2011 and 2012, a polling company Gallup studied millions of workers across 142 countries. They found 13 percent of workers said they were "engaged." 63 percent said they were "not engaged." And finally the remaining 24 percent were "actively disengaged." Which means these workers were not only unhappy with their job, but actively acting out against the other employees and company.

Disconnection from Other People

As we dive head first into social media, the disconnection from humans grows. We no longer have real connections. Physical face-to-face connections. Johann talks of an experiment performed at Berkley by two professors. Groups from four countries were asked to put conscious effort into making themselves happier--The United States, Russia, Taiwan, and Japan. What they found is the group from the west (USA) didn't get any happier. Groups from the east (Russia, Taiwan, Japan) did. Why is that? Western countries tend to be more individualistic. You'll be happier if you buy that car, or get a promotion--build up the ego. The East instead looks at the group. How can I contribute to the community? They instead ignore the ego, and push to connect with other people.

Disconnection from Meaningful Values

Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food [...] we have shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values.

This chapter describes the shift in our culture from intrinsic values to extrinsic values (ie. trying to learn the piano, because we love it vs. learning the piano is impress others). Society has started to push "junk values" (extrinsic) as a solution to happiness. Studies have shown the opposite. An American psychologist, Tim Kasser, gives four reasons why extrinsic values make us feel bad.

  1. Thinking extrinsically poisons your relationships with other people
  2. The ego shrinks while performing intrinsic values. Extrinsic does the opposite. Intrinsic activities produces more flow states than extrinsic activities
  3. Extrinsic thinking keeps us wondering, "How are people judging me?" It's an infinite game. Once we become rich, we want to become richer. "Materialism leaves you constantly vulnerable to a world beyond your control"
  4. We all have innate needs--to feel connected, valued, secure, a feeling we're making a difference in the world. Extrinsic values chases a way of life that does a bad job of meeting these needs

Disconnection from Childhood Trauma

Dr. Vincent Felitti was tasked with investigating Kaiser Permanete's, a not-for-profit medical provider, fastest-growing cost--obesity. He thought, what if we try a radical diet. Have people not eat anything, and then provide them with the required nutrients to stay alive. It worked. Vincent saw amazing results. One woman, Susan, went from 408 pounds to 132 pounds. But, there was a problem. After his patients lost the weight they became depressed, anxious, and even suicidal. Susan gained back 37 pounds in three weeks. Vincent asked her what has changed since losing the weight. She thought. When Susan was obese men never looks at her, but once she got to a healthy weight a colleague asked her out. Vincent was curious, when did she initially start to gain weight? Eleven, when Susan's grandfather began to rape her. "Overweight is overlooked, and that's the way I need to be."

Disconnection from Status and Respect

Many of us would expect status and respect to be linked to depression and anxiety. The lower we are on the social totem pole the more depressed we should be, right? It was found in baboons that even the alpha, the top dog, shows high degrees on depression and anxiety also. They are constantly being challenged for the perks of leader. A constant threat of displacement. Which in time, happens to all baboons when they grow old.

Two social scientists studied the same behavior in humans. What they found is the wider the gap between the poor and rich, the higher the society suffers from depression and anxiety. "When the status gap is too big, it creates a sense of defeat that you can't escape from." Today, more than any other time, we have a much wider status gap. "The six heirs to the Walmart fortune own more [wealth] than the bottom 100 million Americans."

Disconnection from the Natural World

Just go outside, damnit.

Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future

Depression causes a shrinking of the future. A fog. People with depression can barely get through the day, let alone see a possible future. So any possibility of a tomorrow becomes less and less visible. This myopia ensures further depression. Without the availability of a secure future an individual gets thrown into a downwards spiral. Depression is a negative feedback loop.

The Role of Genes and Brain Changes

A group of scientists lead by Avshalom Caspi did the most detailed study of genetic based causes of depression. They found a gene, 5-HTT, that does relate having depression. "If you have a particular flavor of 5-HTT, you have a greatly increased risk of depression, but only is a certain environment." So certain genes make us more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, but it doesn't condemn us. Neuroplasticity also plays a role in depression. Our brains are constantly changing, growing, and killing off unused synapses. Just because we are depressed, doesn't mean we'll always be.

Thoughts and Conclusion

"You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you." This is what a doctor told Johann after he ate an apple, coated with pesticides, causing him to almost die. If the doctor just prescribed nausea medication, then Johann would of surely died. It was a symptom, not the illness. Johann describes depression and anxiety exactly in the same terms. We feel terrible, because we need meaning in our lives, we need nature, and we need other people. It's a mourning for natural humanistic needs.

Lost Connections is an interesting take on the concept of non-chemical anti-depressants, and the ailments of modern society.