Lost Connections

Lost Connections

In his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari contends that our culture’s dominant model of depression is flawed. According to this familiar model, depression and anxiety are chemical imbalances in the brain and so can be cured only by chemical means (i.e. anti-depressants). This reductivist account identifies depression as an affliction of the brain; what happens outside our skulls in the world around us is, at best, of only secondary importance. Hari mounts a two-pronged argument against this view. First, Hari makes a negative case against the chemical imbalance model by appealing to Irving Kirsch’s argument set forth in his book The Emperor’s New Drugs.  Kirsch notes that when studying placebo effects in anti-depressants, he was surprised to find that “25 percent of the effects of antidepressants were due to natural recovery, 50 percent were due to the story you had been told about them [i.e. placebo effects], and only 25 percent to the actual chemicals.”[1] This startling finding led him to investigate the evidence for the effectiveness of antidepressants in more detail. The vast majority of research about these drugs is performed by pharmaceutical companies, and since these companies aim to sell their products, they publicize only the studies that indicate their effectiveness of their drugs. After analyzing the data from all of the studies—not just the ones that the drug companies chose to advertise—Irvine found that the benefits of anti-depressants were negligible. For example, simply getting more sleep could do substantially more to improve a person’s well-being than would taking an anti-depressant. In addition, not does taking anti-depressants have little benefit, but it also carries with it substantial costs in the form of side effects such as weight gain, nausea, sexual disfunction, and fatigue.

After undermining the case for the reductivist model, Hari then sets forth his positive argument for his own non-reductive account by furnishing evidence for seven non-chemical causes for depression. Appealing to studies across various fields, Hari attempts to show that “depression is—in fact—to a significant degree a problem not with your brain, but with your life.”[2] Rather than an irrational event occurring in one’s synapses, depression can be understood as a reasonable response to a breakdown in one’s Lebenswelt. Hari, in something of a shotgun approach, lists seven forms of disconnection that can contribute to depression. In the contemporary world, we are disconnected from: 1) meaningful work, 2) other people, 3) meaningful values, 4) past psychological trauma, 5) status and respect, 6) the natural world, and 7) a hopeful and secure future.

Though Hari’s discussion of these features is itself rather disconnected, I think they can be logically ordered. On my reading, what Hari calls our disconnection from meaningful values proves to be the root cause of all the other forms of disconnection. Hari frames his account by distinguishing what he dubs “junk values” from “real values”. Just as junk food can taste good while at the same time destroying our bodies, so junk values can entice us with the promise of success while at the same time ruining our minds. Hari identifies junk values with the values of a materialistic society. In such a society the purpose of life is to acquire as many material goods as possible so as to enjoy the social status that they confer. These are the values that animate our culture industry and relentlessly promoted through advertising. Hari points to the research of Tim Kasser to show a causal connection between materialistic values and depression. Indeed, not only did people “who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status” have “much higher levels of depression and anxiety”[3], but their overall quality of life also suffered across a variety of dimensions. “They felt sicker, and they were angrier…They experienced less joy, and more despair.”[4] Kasser accounts for these consequences by distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. To pursue an activity as an intrinsic goal is to undertake it simply because one enjoys it, whereas to pursue an activity as an extrinsic goal is to pursue it only because of something else that you want (e.g. money, social approval, etc.) He notes that the achievement of external goals provides no increase to one’s personal happiness—only the attainment of internal goals that does so.[5] Kasser hypothesizes that materialistic goals are a kind of extrinsic goal and will thereby provide no increase in personal happiness once attained. Worse yet, the pursuit of these materialistic goals makes people feel worse:

 “What Tim had discovered is that the message our culture is telling us about how to have a decent and satisfying life, virtually all the time, is not true. The more this was studied, the clearer it became. Twenty-two different studies have, in the years since, found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be. Twelve different studies found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more anxious you will be.” [6]

Hari accounts for the negative effects of materialism by noting four consequences of pursuing it: It ruins relationships, keeps people from experiencing flow states, forces people to obsess about what others think of them all the time, and, most importantly keeps people from attaining their innate needs as humans. Hari explains:

“All of us have certain innate needs—to feel connected, to feel valued, to feel secure, to feel we make a difference in the world, to have autonomy, to feel we’re good at something. Materialistic people, he believes, are less happy—because they are chasing a way of life that does a bad job of meeting these needs.

What you really need are connections. But what you are told you need, in our culture, is stuff and a superior status, and in the gap between those two signals—from yourself and from society—depression and anxiety will grow as your real needs go unmet.”[7]

The basic idea here is that there is such a thing as human nature and that this nature requires certain objective goods to flourish.[8] The reason why we are so chronically unhappy is that we have been chasing goals that are not conducive to human flourishing and, in the process, ignoring those goods that will make for a satisfying life. Hari suggests that we persist in the pursuits of these delusional goals because they constitute the core myths underlying contemporary society. Our educational and social institutions and the non-stop advertising to which we are subjected serve to propagate the myth that conspicuous consumption is the goal of life:

“There’s never enough. When you’re focused on money and status and possessions, consumer society is always telling you more, more, more, more. Capitalism is always telling you more, more, more. Your boss is telling you work more, work more, work more. You internalize that and you think: Oh, I got to work more, because my self depends on my status and my achievement. You internalize that. It’s a kind of form of internalized oppression.”[9]

It is this disconnection from human nature’s true good, what a previous era would have called humanity’s τελος, that is responsible for the other forms of disconnection that Hari discusses in his book.  We are disconnected from meaningful work since the goals towards which the work is directed and the manner in which it is executed fail to align with the genuine goods of human nature. For example, when we have no control over how we do our jobs, we are unable to exercise the autonomy necessary for human flourishing. Likewise, since we don’t share meaningful values with others, we cannot share common goals with them. This, argues Hari, is what leads to loneliness:

 “To end loneliness, you need other people—plus something else. You also need…to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you. You have to be in it together—and ‘it’ can be anything you both think has meaning and value….  Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”[10]

Or again, it is only in view of the true goods of human nature that we can understand, acknowledge, and heal from psychological trauma. And the reason that we fail to show each other basic respect as human beings is that we have taken up a value system that denies people’s intrinsic worth. If we create a society in which only the rich and famous are rewarded and adopt a mythology of a meritocratic world to justify the fact that most people are brutalized in the process, then cruelty and alienation will be the inevitable consequence. Moreover, since we must devote all our energy to inflating our market value, this will leave us without the time and attention to venture outdoors in nature. And finally, these same distorted values force most people into precarious employment where they are left with no hope for a stable or secure future.

It is thus our disconnection from the true good that explains all the other forms of disconnection responsible for depression. One interesting upshot of this analysis—an upshot not discussed by Hari— is that our current mental health crisis proves to be at root a philosophical and theological crisis. Far from being a “useless” ivory tower pastime, as it is often portrayed (even in religious and university contexts), reflection on and identification of the Good is of fundamental importance to human flourishing.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] Johann Hari, Lost Connections, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018, 21-22.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Ibid., 94.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] Ibid., 96.

[7] Ibid., 98.

[8] Note the transition from talking about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and goals to discussion of the objective goods of human nature. These are two very different concepts, yet Hari and Kasser appear to conflate them. For example, one could be internally motivated to become a competitive eater, pursuing it for the sheer joy  of eating hot dogs. Yet, though internally motivated, it would not be an objective good of human nature since eating hot dogs all day would make one sick and obese.

[9] Ibid., 101.

[10] Ibid., 83.

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