One of the moments that stands out in my mind of my spell engaging with a psychiatrist in my home town in the summer of 2017 is when I was blethering on about my experience being an existential crisis before anything else and I casually mentioned that money and status weren’t important to me.
The psychiatrist’s body language immediately indicated that this jarred with him and he turned in his chair to face me fully.
‘You don’t think there’s anything wrong with those things though, do you?’ he asked, signalling what I had already clocked about him: that money and status were of paramount importance to him, with his many letters after his name and dollar-aplenty pouring into his life via his day job and extensive extra private work carried out in one of a few living rooms in his lovely house.
I knew from my dad, who does the building work in his lovely house, that his fellow health professional neighbours had once got a dog, so he and his wife promptly got a bigger dog.
One of the nine causes of depression and anxiety outlined by journalist, author and erstwhile plagiarist Johann Hari in his new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, is our exposure as a society to ‘junk values’, with our culture constantly pushing us to live ‘extrinsically’.
Buy a big dog because of your intrinsic love of animals, canine companionship and drive to nurture a fellow living thing = good. Buy a big dog to fulfil your extrinsic need to outdo your neighbours = bad.
Hari previously wrote about the war on drugs and did a good TED talk on how addiction is a functional response to particular life experiences and a lack of supportive relationships. Featuring ‘Rat Park’, a curious experiment with rodents and heroin.
So now he has turned his attention to depression and anxiety and is getting significant flack for it because people think he’s suggesting they ditch their medication IMMEDIATELY (which he clearly isn’t, however flawed you consider his findings to be).
Talking at London’s Conway Hall about his new book this week, he described being told at 18 that his constant feeling of sadness was down to a straightforward glitch in his brain chemistry and that some readily available pills existed to correct it. He took the pills, felt better, sadness leaked through again, his dose was increased; repeat sequence.
Several years into this he was prompted to look beyond the chemicals to explain his own persistent sadness and the growing levels of us experiencing the same.
Lost Connections lays out the results of research into depression and anxiety that took Hari 40,000 miles across the world and shines the spotlight on environmental factors rather than the fabled chemical imbalance often attributed to that familiar head-funk.
He reasons that just as every human being has fundamental physical needs – for food, water, shelter, clean air – so do we have basic psychological needs, including a need to feel we belong, that we’re valued, that we’re good at something, have meaning and purpose, that we have a secure future.
The evidence points to our culture increasingly not meeting these psychological needs for many. Hari notes that not everyone will necessarily experience full-blown depression and anxiety; a lot of people will just go through life with that vague feeling of unhappiness and a sense that things are less fulfilling than they might have been.
Ultimately, fundamental changes to the structure and goals of society and the education system are what’s needed to begin addressing the malaise striking us at an ever younger age. But Hari outlines several ways the individual can begin examining him or herself and approach life in a way more conducive to mental wellness.
Owning our stories is one of these things: instead of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ the question becomes ‘what happened to you?’ with the intrinsic release of shame in this described by Hari as ‘an antidepressant’.
As with his conclusions regarding addiction, the theme of connectedness – to ourselves, others, nature – features strongly.
In Conway Hall, Hari recounted his finding that psilocybin, the psychedelic compound of magic mushrooms, has a positive effect on depression and anxiety not because of any chemical alterations to the brain but because it stimulates a spiritual experience of intense connection to all things. For a while the ego part of us is switched off and we get a glimpse of life minus those pesky junk values.
Like his friend Russell Brand, I perceive Hari to be one of those people who will always attract copious flack. But who, nonetheless, is asking questions that need to be asked and exploring conclusions that stimulate debate as to how the hell to approach the business of being human in the 21st century AD.