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.

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