‘Lost Connections’ written by Johaan Hari made me cry, in the best possible way.
Don’t be put off by a fear this is a self-help manual intended to get you thinking about yourself. It is the opposite. It is a refreshingly accessible overview of key scientific studies highlighting the exaggeration of biological explanations of depression and anxiety originating in chemical imbalances in the brain. The book explains the social, psychological and biological causes – and solutions – to depression and anxiety that hinders the happiness of so many people.
Being a social scientist and Labour campaigner, the social causes and solutions struck me hardest. To reduce Hari’s message to it’s simplest and most important; depression and anxiety are caused by our disconnection, with the solutions to be found in more connection to each other, to meaningful work, to meaningful values and to the ability to imagine a secure future.
Importantly, Hari does not discount any one explanation – social, psychological or biological:
“They are all real, and none of these three can be described as something as crude as the idea of a chemical imbalance. The social and psychological causes have been ignored for a long time, even though it seems the biological causes don’t even kick in without them.”
The Nine Causes of Depression and Anxiety
Hari’s excellent writing style makes the findings of decades of academic literature absolutely accessible. In his exploration of this he highlights nine social and psychological causes of depression:
- Disconnection from meaningful work
- Disconnection from other people
- Disconnection from meaningful values
- Disconnection from childhood trauma
- Disconnection from status and respect
- Disconnection from the natural world
- Disconnection from a hopeful and secure future
- and 9. Disconnection from the real role of genes and brain changes
I can’t do justice here to the sheer amount of information he convincingly distills. For readers who follow social science it will be of little surprise Hari interviews Michael Marmott, author of the excellent book ‘The Health Gap‘ and the Marmot Review, the UK government commissioned independent review of health inequalities. Similarly well-known names include Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of ‘The Spirit Level’. Alongside these I was introduced to fascinating insights from respected professors who dared to ask questions ridiculed by others, who followed their hunches and even surprised themselves with their findings.
Reconnection, Or, a Different Kind of Antidepressant
The final section of the book concentrates on solutions based on the causal evidence presented in the list of nine highlighted above. This is where my political and ideological beliefs reassuring collided with evidence of what works.
- Reconnection: to other people
- Reconnection: social prescribing
- Reconnection: to meaningful work
- Reconnection: to meaningful vales
- Reconnection: to sympathetic joy and overcoming addiction to the self
- Reconnection: acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma
- Reconnection: restoring the future
This book needs to be read by everyone who cares about living in a society that benefits the many, not the few: it’s impossible in this review for me to articulate the inspiration and hope I felt while reading about these solutions. To the amusement of my husband I even sat upright and exclaimed in joy when Hari interviewed Rutger Bregman, author of ‘Utopia for Realists’. Yeah I get the humour to be found in the juxtaposition of getting excited while reading a book about depression. But I am excited, because the changes required are within our grasp.
We are stronger together
We all know this, deep down, don’t we? We are at our strongest, our happiest, our most hopeful and most secure when we are surrounded by, and connected to, others. For some that might be our closest family or friends, for others we might be lucky enough to feel that through our religious, political, geographical community or perhaps those we share interests of identities with.
That’s not what our culture radiates though is it? Our culture bombards us, literally, with messages from a multi-billion dollar advertising industry trying to convince us to think about our own individual ‘needs’ because we are not ‘our best’ – that we’d be so much happier, thinner, sexier and successful if we just buy more and more shit. And that’s before we even consider the power social media can have in making us feel envious and isolated.
We need to consider and challenge our current economical and political system of neoliberal capitalism. It is dangerous, but it is not inevitable. It encourages us to be in competition, rather than cooperation with each other; to believe Thatcher’s damaging proclamation there is ‘no such thing as society’; to believe austerity is necessary even if it leaves people in poverty; to smash trade union rights even if it leaves people insecure. It understands and articulates us as selfish individuals.
This individualisation needs to be overcome. Hari summarises this eloquently:
“This is why we should not – must not – talk about solving depression and anxiety only through individual changes. To tell people that the solution lies solely or primarily in in tweaking your own life would be a denial of so much of what I learned on this journey. Once you understand that depression is to a significant degree a collective problem caused by something that’s gone wrong in our culture, it becomes obvious that the solutions have to be – to a significant degree – collective, too. We have to change the culture so that more people are freed up to change their lives”
Cultural and political change are two sides of the same coin. The people I have been lucky enough to meet in my local Labour party regularly top up my optimism that this can be achieved. Find your people who will help you collectively contribute to the changes we need.
I will end with an apology for being one of the people spreading the inaccurate story that depression and anxiety is caused by a chemical imbalance. Instinctively, I feel that our disconnection is harmful and I know from my own lived experience that connection is incredibly important to wellbeing. I have read about the power of Big Pharma, I have studied and reflected on power imbalances – yet it is not until I read Hari’s book that I have joined the dots.
I now realise that as I strive for social justice I must help people find opportunities to be connected. As I continue to campaign for social democracy I will keep in mind the wellbeing of millions of people who will overcome the pain of depression and anxiety as we create a more equal, more connected world.