Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — Johann Hari

Here is a typical narrator in a Michel Houellebecq novel—in this case, François from Submission, but most Houellebecq narrators express similar sentiments:

My life was marked by real intellectual achievements. In a certain milieu—granted, a very small one—I was known and even respected. Financially, I had nothing to complain about. Until I died I was guaranteed a generous income, twice the national average, without having to do any work. And yet I knew I was close to suicide, not out of despair or even any special sadness, simply from the degradation of “the set of functions that resist death,” in Bichat’s famous formulation.

One could posit various reasons for François’s feelings, ranging from the literary to the psychological to the spiritual, but Hari offers another explanation, or set of explanations.

Many people are suffering from crises of meaning. Man’s Search for Meaning addresses one set of possibilities for making meaning. Lost Connections offers another, more systematic but complementary to Frankl. It’s a fantastic book, but ignore the subtitle, which makes Lost Connections sound more like clickbait than it actually is; I’d not properly considered loneliness until I read this book, though I thought I had.

He gives context to problems I’d not fully perceived: “If you can be everywhere—in vehicles, or online—you end up. . . being nowhere.” That’s something artists know. Many, maybe most, of the best novels are set somewhere very particular, and perhaps that isn’t by chance. Even The Lord of the Rings is set somewhere very particular, albeit imaginary, and the provincialism of the Shire is necessary to offset the grandeur of many other locations.

He takes his own advice and sees specific people living specific ways—like the Amish. Hari also grew up not far from Orthodox Jews and scorned them, but, when he goes to visit the Amish, he finds himself “reflecting on some of the flaws in how we live,” and he “wondered if they might have something to teach me after all.” Maybe religion is underestimated by a lot of modern secularists, myself included. Tyler Cowen has been saying that the top thinkers of our age are or will be religious thinkers, and, although I’m skeptical, I’m less skeptical than I used to be.

Hari cites nine causes of depression, while stating that they’re not exhaustive, including disconnection from meaningful work; other people; meaningful values; childhood trauma; status and respect; the natural world; and a hopeful or secure future. If you counted the preceding list, you’ll notice that it has only seven items; eight and nine are “the real role of genes and brain changes.” These causes are linked with potential solutions. The chapters themselves are detailed. For example, he tells stories about the research into what makes work depressing; a number of factors exist, including indifference:

If these tax inspectors worked really hard and gave it their best, nobody noticed. And if they did a lousy job, nobody noticed, either. Despair often happens […] when there is a ‘lack of balance between effort and rewards.’ It was the same for Joe in his paint shop. Nobody ever noticed how much effort he put in. The signal you get from the world, in that situation, is—you’re irrelevant. Nobody cares what you do.

Ignore the slightly awkward shift into second person narration and attend to the idea: indifference can actually be worse than constructive criticism. If someone is trying to help a person improve, their job matters. If no one tries, it doesn’t. We think of depression as a disease of the mind, but it may be impossible to separate mind, body, and social environment.

Another possible solution, or piece of the solution? Psychedelics. Here is a current review of psychedelics research. Psychedelics are not a panacea, but neither are prescription antidepressants or the many other things currently being used to deal with depression/loneliness.

Loneliness is everywhere, but it’s striking how little I read or hear about it. It’s improper to admit deep loneliness on Facebook, or all those other repositories of digital loneliness. Loneliness is effectively enshrined into law through our building codes, which prevent us from constructing housing that encourages people to talk to each other. Yet it’s often felt and rarely discussed. Lost Connections could easily be named, Loneliness: Causes and Consequences. But loneliness is often a second-, third-, or fourth-order consequence of many other decisions, so we never get to it—we stay at the surface level, not the deeper levels, as Hari does. Lost Connections can be seen as an indictment of the way we live and the way we’ve built our society. But how many people are listening? I’m not sure the answer. The book is easy to read, in the sense of having a normal vocabulary and being wrapped in stories, but it’s hard to read, in the sense that many of us will recognize ourselves and our own life mistakes in it. It’s akin to Deep Work, another book about the mistaken ways we live.

It’s striking, too, that the Internet was supposed to connect us and make loneliness easier to cure. But if it’s had that effect on net, we’re not able to see it show up statistically or in depression data. There are obvious advantages to the Internet: I know lots of people who hooked up through online dating. I myself have met other nerds (or “intellectuals” if one prefers) through this blog. But:

The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing—Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that “every status update is just a variation on a single request: ‘Would someone please acknowledge me?'”

It turns out the Internet is just a tool, and like so many tools it can be used well or poorly, to facilitate or attack loneliness. Or maybe, as Hari writes, it’s neither countervailed nor enhanced trends that “had already been taking place for decades.” Maybe the Internet has actually arrested the social isolation trends already at work.

There are many further insightful passages I could cite, at the risk of merely summarizing it, but I’ll say that I’m keeping the book and look forward to rereading it. In the last sections of Lost Connections, Hari lists possible solutions, and most seem wildly implausible—which is why anti-depressants are so popular. Anti-depressants are easy, cheap, and uniform (at least in formulation). Hari’s solutions are hard, expensive, and difficult to scale (from the perspective of a society or organization).

But hard things are often worth doing. It’s hard to build social networks and meaningful relationships. Rejection stings. It’s tempting to stop trying. Most of our world, from the way we zone cities to the way we get around the world in cars, is designed to cut social connections rather than build them (no one asks about the psychological cost of mandating single-family houses in suburban areas). To rebuild lost connections takes a lot of time and effort. Scanning Facebook is easier than getting a drink. The alternative to doing hard things is worse. Advertising and marketing cultures seduce us with promises of ease and convenience. We’re reluctant to embrace the difficult and inconvenient, which is to say the human and humane.

I don’t have final answers for creating a meaningful life, but I do think there are parts of the U.S. educational and cultural systems that are systematically misrepresenting what’s important in life. We spend 12 – 16 years in school and yet often never take a financial literacy class or psychology of meaning and satisfaction class. Sometimes psychology or English classes may accomplish the latter, but they do so on an ad-hoc basis and rely on instructor charisma and passion that is hard to systematize and reproduce. Instead, those of us curious about such topics have to learn about them on an ad-hoc basis, through books like Lost Connections. Lost Connections is good. Don’t expect to understand all of it during the first read. It’s a book that may grow with your life.

Links: The parking scourge, what happened to institutions?, Houellebecq, semicolons, and more!

* “In Some US Cities, There Are Over Ten Times More Parking Spaces Than Households.” Should you be wondering why the rent is too damn high and the commuting times too damn long, this is part of the answer.

* “San Francisco’s zoning makes it illegal to build apartments in 73.5% of the city.” And that, friends, is another part of the reason the rent is too damn high.

* “‘Up or out’ institutional structures go sideways,” a piece similar to this previously linked piece that makes a similar observation.

* A story about leaving China, which is very different and more specific than “the usual,” while also offering some abstract lessons and ideas.

* “Linux touchpad like a Macbook: goal worth pursuing.” It is bad that Apple has had a far better touchpad experience for at least five years and arguably much longer.

* “Michel Houellebecq Imagined Sexual Dystopia. Now It’s Arrived.” I disagree with the absoluteness of the headline but the story is of interest.

* “#HeToo? A Fight for Men’s Rights, in California Courts.” A surprising venue for this story as well.

* “On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing.” I like and will continue to use semicolons, likely until I can no longer write.

* “What If Trump Has Been a Russian Asset Since 1987?” Still unlikely but much more likely than I would’ve thought two years ago—or even one year ago.

* “The Age of Acceleration: An Interview with Martin Amis.”

* People Are Bad at Being Productive in a Limited Time.

* I Was the Mob Until the Mob Came for Me.

* “A Global Heat Wave Has Set the Arctic Circle on Fire.”

* “In Hollywood, ‘Anything Goes’ Becomes ‘You’re Fired.’” Ill news for creativity and creative freedom.

* “California teacher pension debt swamps school budgets.” This is unsustainable, to use an overused word that is nonetheless applicable here.

* The childless, aging future.

* “A Theory of Trump Kompromat,” not just the usual.

* “Crossing the divide: Do men really have it easier? These transgender guys found the truth was more complex.” The short answer is “no.”

* “Academia Is the Alternative Career Path: Why pretend otherwise?” Seems totally obvious to me.

* Universities withstood MOOCs but risk being outwitted by OPMs [online programme managers]. Good.

* “Parking Has Eaten American Cities,” another take on the first link. You’ll know people are really serious about improving everyone’s economic and financial lives when they come for parking.

* “Book Breaking and Book Mending: Most academic books aren’t written to be read—they’re written to be ‘broken.’ That should change.” The subtext of this article is, “Don’t get a PhD in the humanities. Even if you do, and even if you ‘publish,’ what you publish will be of little value and will likely go unread.”

Links: Yet more on the humanities, what makes an author read, vertical farming, some unusual points, and more!

* “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?” I’d add a lot of “purportedly” to this title and article. There is also oddly little discussion of how the humanities have damned themselves, or ourselves, through the pursuit of advocacy and absurdity rather than truth or knowledge. This comic does more to explain the situation than many books.

* “Donald Trump and norms: Resistance needs substance.” Lots of context here, context that is lost in the typical discussion—especially on Twitter.

* “Through the Looking Glass at Concordia University,” which bolsters the first link: “Universities are in a state of crisis, but this crisis did not emerge overnight. It required an hospitable environment to take root. Some journalists and professors have dismissed the phenomenon as a form of moral panic, invented by right-wing provocateurs.”

* “Scholarly publishing is broken. Here’s how to fix it.”

* “Why commuting by public transport makes most people happier,” at least when the subways work.

* “A feminist makes a documentary about Men’s Rights Activists,” not the sort of thing one typically reads.

* He’s One of Brazil’s Greatest Writers. Why Isn’t Machado de Assis More Widely Read?

* “The Tunnel That Could Break New York.” I offer this for its own sake but also because it’s a sign of bad news in civic government; the U.S. better maintenance and more infrastructure, but it simultaneously needs to get costs under control and in line with other developed world countries. If costs are reasonable, voters will get on board. If not, they often won’t. The U.S. may also be suffering from the curse of “good enough.”

* Book culture in New York City.

* “Why capitalism won’t survive without socialism” is a bad title for a good interview with Eric Weinstein; he speaks of institutions with “embedded growth hypotheses” in them, and how those institutions have become dysfunctional over time:

Let’s say, for example, that I have a growing law firm in which there are five associates at any given time supporting every partner, and those associates hope to become partners so that they can hire five associates in turn. That formula of hierarchical labor works well while the law firm is growing, but as soon as the law firm hits steady state, each partner can really only have one associate, who must wait many years before becoming partner for that partner to retire. That economic model doesn’t work, because the long hours and decreased pay that one is willing to accept at an entry-level position is predicated on taking over a higher-lever position in short order. That’s repeated with professors and their graduate students. It’s often repeated in military hierarchies.

Academia suffers similarly.

* “Is Vertical Farming the Future of Your Salad?

* “On Toxic Femininity;” not at all my favorite phrase, but it’s revealing how little one hears it used.

* The Entire History of Steel.

* “Scientists assessed the options for growing nuclear power. They are grim.” Very bad news.

* The very rarely discussed dark side of Airbnb.

* The great Apple keyboard coverup. Good news: the new Apple laptop keyboards are likely resistant to the problems that have plagued models from the last two years. Bad news: models from the last two years are still prone to failure.

* American cities are drowning in car storage.

* “To Recruit Students, Colleges Turn to Corporate-Marketing Playbook.” Profs in humanities departments are probably aghast and impotent.

* Hoity lawyer prefers sexting to lawyering, although that is not the headline; still, I wonder what this tells us about the law and lawyers.

* “How Hospital Administrators Hide the Umbrella.”

* “If you haven’t read @devonzuegel’s post on North American vs Japanese zoning it will help you understand why Tokyo can be dense, highly populated, and cheap, and the US never seems to manage that.”

* How Helsinki Arrived at the Future of Urban Travel First.

Kolyma Stories — Varlam Shalamov

Tyler Cowen praises them, justifiably, and links to a good review of them, albeit one that’s somewhat difficult to access. Despite that praise, though, I sense that I’ve read “enough” stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the gulag experience and the madness of totalitarianism; after The Gulag Archipelago and Darkness at Noon and others, do I need another?

If you’ve not read about this period and these systems, go ahead and get a copy and trust the praise. The stories are brilliantly realized, and yet I feel like a little reading about the gulag goes a long way, and my feelings about gulags are unlikely to change much.* So this is probably a book for some of you, and it’s extremely good for a book of its kind, and I hope it is not a timely book (even as China rounds up and forcibly encamps members of at least one ethnic minority—you saw that in the news, right?).

Still, as with reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers or similar books, it can be useful to remember just how rich we really are in the modern United States. In the day-to-day, that’s easily forgotten; it’s also easy to forget how adapted we are to a particular environment. Do you know how to salt-cure meat? Especially from a freshly shot bear? Me neither. Yet a group of prisoners does just that. I could look up a how-to on the Internet, but if you stuck me in a prison camp tomorrow, I’d have to learn from others or suffer or die.

The prose has been described as straightforward, but I am not always so sure:

Time spent under interrogation in pretrial prison slips from your memory, leaving no noticeable sharp traces. For anyone who is detained there, the prison and its encounters and people are not the main thing. The main thing is what all your mental, spiritual, and nervous energy is spent on in prison—that is, the battle with your interrogator.

“Leaving no noticeable sharp traces” makes you wonder: does it leave noticeable but not sharp traces? Or noticeable dull traces? And that “anyone:” with it, the narrator attempts to speak for everyone, and maybe he does. It’s another of the moments when the stories oscillate between the universal and specific.

Yet, as I said, there are many, many passages I call relentlessly grim:

Those who’d been badly beaten under interrogation and whose souls had been reduced to dust by a thousand interrogations, while their bodies were wrecked and exhausted by unbearably heavy work, prisoners with sentences of twenty-five years plus five years’ deprivation of rights, sentences that were unsurvivable, which you could not hope to come out of alive…. All these people were trembling, yelling, and cursing Fedorenko, because they were afraid of catching leprosy.

The sentence keeps going, perhaps in imitation of the prison lengths, until its sudden end. Perhaps it isn’t relentlessly grim, as that last clause may be a bit of humor, however dark.

The details are good:

He was, of course, a cardsharp, for an honest game among thieves is a game of deception; you have the right to watch and catch out your partner, and you have to be just as good as he is at cheating and at holding on to your dubious winnings.

And here, again, the microcosm of the cheating game reflects the macrocosm of the cheating legal and political systems. Those systems have changed since Stalin’s day, but Russia’s legal system remains a tool of the Putin apparatus. There are no apparent mass murders—but the mass repression remains.

Which raises another point, at least in my mind: for the last two hundred or more years, the smartest thing a Russian person could do is leave Russia. Certainly that’s true over the past hundred years. It was true in 1918 and remains true today. The amazing thing is that Russia still has 140 million people living in it. That may be testimony to the power of the human spirit and body to suffer, as well as the difficulty of emigration.

In the introductory essay, the translator writes that “Shalamov disapproved of novels as elaborate structures that falsified their material.” Yet that is precisely what I like about them! Novels need to be structured by plot; if they are not, they tend to be boring. Kolyma is disconnected in most ways, which may be truer but can also, at least in my view, be numbing. Which, again, may be appropriate to the material.

Next up is The Seventh Function of Language, which looks supremely entertaining and unrealistic, based on this review. Like Kolyma, it features people behaving meanly to each other.

* I’m opposed.

Links: MacBook Pro woes, suburbs, the dark net, the puzzle around you, and more!

* “Apple Engineers Its Own Downfall with the Macbook Pro Keyboard.” I had a 12″ Macbook and returned it: the trackpad is absurdly large and, at that time, the keyboard problems were rumored more than proven.

* “Inside a Heist of American Chip Designs, as China Bids for Tech Power.”

* “The myth of revealed preference for suburbs.” Makes sense: if it’s illegal to build the housing people want to live in, they’ll have to live somewhere else.

* “A secret network of women is working outside the law and the medical establishment to provide safe, cheap home abortions.” Probably not that secret if it’s being written about publicly and widely linked online, no?

* “1896: Immigration and The Atlantic;” when it comes to immigration, the dates and specific examples change, but the basic arguments don’t.

* “California Will Be Fourth State to Sue Navient Over Student Loans.” My first impulse is to say, “Good,” but more reflections makes me hesitate; the student loan business exists because of us and fuels the growing costs of college, which in turn fuels the student loan business. We’ve set up this perfidious flywheel and have decided not to dismantle it. Strangely, too, no one or almost no one has tried to set up an academically rigorous, low-cost college. Virtually all colleges except community colleges are following or attempting to follow the Harvard model (tenure, academic “prestige” through “research,” etc.). Maybe it’s time to do something different?

* Andrew Sullivan on why we should say yes to drugs. Not just the usual.

* Grow the puzzle around you, by Jessica Livingston of Founders at Work.

* Review of the Purism 13″ laptop. Given some of Apple’s recent foibles, as noted above, alternatives to the MacBook Pro are important.

* “Can Andy Byford Save the Subways?” Many beautiful details in this story.

Life: There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate

“There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate. Sometimes snobbery is forced upon you. So let’s have a period of exaggerated respect for reason; and let’s look down on people who use language without respecting it. Liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travelers in verbal cynicism, inertia, and sloth.”

—Martin Amis, The Rub of Time, a beautiful sentiment, especially the idea of rationality and literacy being universally available but not, as we can see, universally adopted. I want to start citing that one when I hear people denigrate standards. To join the clerisy you need no special degrees and there are no gatekeepers; you only need books, and time, and your mind.

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