Lost Connections has been on my reading list for quite a while after seeing Johann Hari’s Ted Talk. Hari, who suffers from anxiety and depression himself, talks to experts from all over the world to look at why depression is the next pandemic and what we can do to stop it.
Hari considers how our lost connections influence our mental health and explores the different factors contributing to the rising levels of depression and anxiety. He also looks at what we can do to reconnect.
Like solutions to most human problems, Hari does not offer a single or simple fix. Instead, he explores the steps we can take to ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety while also investigating the shifts that need to occur in society to stop the depression and anxiety pandemic from spreading.
Also read: Ten ways to manage your coronavirus anxiety
Lost Connections investigates the different social and psychological causes of depression and anxiety, including disconnection from:
- Meaningful work
- Other people
- Meaningful values
- Childhood trauma
- Status and respect
- The natural world
- A hopeful or secure future
- The real role of genes
Each chapter explores these causes in detail. Hari includes real-life stories and studies to examine these causes before offering advice in the subsequent chapters on how we can reconnect.
Cover versions of the same song
Hari dives into explaining how he views depression and anxiety and writes that he sees it as cover versions of the same songs by different bands. “Depression is a cover version by a downbeat emo band, and anxiety is a cover version by a screaming heavy metal group, but the underlying sheet music is the same.”
Research has shown that depression and anxiety are usually linked:
- About 85% of patients with depression have significant anxiety.
- Around 90% of patients with anxiety disorder have depression.
Hari quotes neuroscientist and professor Marc Lewis, who explains: “If you look at a brain scan of a depressed or highly anxious person, it will look different from the brain scan of somebody without these problems”. Hari acknowledges that the feelings anxious and depressed people feel are real but explores the idea that these feelings have different causes than the ones we have been told about, i.e., a malfunction in our brains.
It’s not serotonin; it’s society
In Lost Connections, Hari looks beyond the serotonin levels in our brain to determine why the rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise. Hari looks at how we live as a society influences our mental state.
“You are not suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain. You are suffering from a social and spiritual imbalance in how we live,” Hari writes.
Our lives have a significant influence on our mental state, and while this seems obvious now, Hari argues that in the past, other factors were not considered when doctors would prescribe medication.
Typical antidepressant experience
Hari looks at a study completed in the late 1990s when scientists wanted to test the effects of new SSRI antidepressants. They found that the drugs worked as 67% of patients did feel better. Unfortunately, they also found that within a year, half of the patients were fully depressed again.
When Hari read the results, he realised that his experience with antidepressants was normal. “My experience was straight from the textbook: far from being an outlier, I had the typical antidepressant experience.”
While antidepressants did not work for Hari, he argues that all hope is not lost. There are other ways in which we can reconnect to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The chapter I found most interesting focused on how much of an influence our work life has on our mental health. Hari includes a study done by the polling company Gallup in 2011 and 2012 to determine how people worldwide feel about their work. Gallup found that:
- Only 13% of people are engaged in their work.
- 87% of people are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”.
In other words, the study found that most people hate their jobs. Hari further delves into a study of the British civil service offices conducted in the 1970s that found that the workers’ degree of control of their work had a massive influence on their likelihood of becoming depressed.
I have seen this to be true in my own work life. Even if the work is the same, the amount of control or influence I have over it determines how positively invested I am to get the job done.
Having control of your work situation makes all the difference. But according to Hari, finding a meaningful way to pay the bills is rare. He quotes the Dutch economic historian Rutger Bregman who says: “Having fulfilling work is seen as a freakish exception, like winning the lottery, instead of how we should all be living.”
A different way of looking at depression
In Lost Connections, Hari takes a closer look at how we should be living. He writes that in the past, there have been two ways of looking at depression:
- A broken brain (due to lack of serotonin)
- A moral failing or sign or weakness
Hari suggests a third option, “largely a reaction to the way we are living”. He quotes Allen Barbour, an internist at Stanford University, who had said that depression isn’t a disease; it is a normal response to abnormal life experiences.
Hari includes ways to change how we have been living and reconnect to our community, our jobs, and our values to change our current situation. He quotes Eastern philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti who said: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society”. In the book’s final chapters, Hari explores the different ways in which we (and society) need to change to stop the depression and anxiety pandemic from spreading.
What I enjoyed most about Lost Connections is that Hari deals with the controversial topics of depression and anxiety with sensitivity. It helps that he writes about mental health struggles from a personal point of view and shares his own story in between interviews, medical studies, and anecdotes.
The only negative thing I have to say about Lost Connections is that some of the information did feel like something I’ve heard before – but maybe it was just because I watched Hari’s Ted Talk and listened to his Armchair Expert interview before buying the book. I would highly recommend reading the book first.
Some of the research and ideas also seemed outdated (like the studies from the 1970s and late 1990s). I would be interested to know what Hari’s view is on more recent studies as I think SSRIs and our approach to mental health have since changed for the better. Overall, it was an informative read that I would recommend to anyone interested in mental health.