The Social Crash of 2019: depression and disconnection.
Why we can't escape depression.
Let's get straight to it.
Between 65 and 80 percent of people on antidepressants are still depressed.
Why? Because the link between depression and low levels of serotonin is fictitious. It is a myth that has been manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.
The problem lies not in our brains, but with our environment, culture and way of living.
These are bold statements, I know. But read Lost Connections by Johann Hari and you'll likely come to the same startling conclusions.
In his revolutionary book, Hari travels the globe researching the rise in depression and anxiety and finds 9 causes- none of which begin with the chemicals in our brains.
What follows is a summary of 4 of the causes of depression and anxiety, put forward by Hari, that I found most interesting and compelling (disclaimer: 90% of what is to follow are Hari's genius and enlightening thoughts and findings- I do not take credit for any of it).
1. Disconnection from meaningful work: basically, ya bored. It's too easy. In a study of workers across the world, it was found that 63% were 'not engaged'. They were "sleepwalking through their workday, putting time - but not energy or passion - into their work." It makes sense that without meaning in your job you may become depressed. What drive is there to get out of bed every day if you don't enjoy or feel rewarded by the work you spend your 9-5 doing? There is more to it, however... In another study focusing on civil servants, it was found that the people with the more typically 'stressful' jobs (high level civil servants) showed far lower levels of depression than those with the easier, simpler jobs (low level civil servants). The low level civil servants became disempowered by the monotony of their job, whereas the top level civil servants were driven by the control and pressure their stressful jobs entailed. Turns out stress as we know it isn't all bad, sometimes, in fact, we need it to feel alive.
2. Disconnection from people: loneliness. We have evolved from existing in tribes. We are inherently co-operative and social creatures. Being alone once meant danger, vulnerability from predators, and, quite often, death. Being connected was, and therefore still is, adaptively positive in terms of survival. There is a physical, bodily response to prove the functionality of being connected to others: micro-awakenings. A lonely person will more frequently experience interrupted sleep in which they are forced into a lighter stage of sleep. This is the brain protecting a lone person from danger (predators) by preventing them from deep sleep! One study measuring physiological levels of stress concluded "being acutely lonely [...] was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack." Loneliness is therefore not only emotionally suckish, but psychologically and physically detrimental too. It's "an aversive state that motivates us to reconnect."
3. Disconnection from meaningful values: what we are told will make us happy vs what will really make us happy. There are two motivators that drive human behaviour: Extrinsic motives - the things you do because of what you get in return (money, status, admiration). Intrinsic motives - the things you do purely for joy; you don't expect anything else from it. It's worth looking at your current and future life goals and assessing whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic, because studies have found the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated a person is, the more likely they are to become depressed and/ or anxious. This makes sense: if you live your life with the aim of impressing others, whether that be through the acquisition of money or status, rather than doing the things that you really love, happiness will surely remain a distant sentiment.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where we are encouraged to strive for extrinsic motives. The function of advertising, for example, which follows us everywhere we go, is to make people feel inadequate.
"We are being propagandised to live in a way that doesn't meet our basic psychological needs - so we are left with a permanent, puzzling sense of dissatisfaction." Hari
Rupi Kaur, of the beauty industry in the sun and her flowers. // Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive.
4. Disconnection from the natural world: city vs countryside; inactivity vs activity. Years of research has shown that rates of anxiety, depression, even psychosis and schizophrenia, are higher in cities than the countryside. Furthermore, the severity of mental ill health is found to decrease with exercise. Animals in captivity can offer a painful reflection of ourselves in this modern world where we are so detached from nature. Bonobos in zoos, deprived of their natural habitat, show symptoms of despair discouragingly akin to human depression. And yet, we are animals, so why do we think ourselves so immune from the deprivation of our natural habitat and natural propensity to move? We are unknowingly allowing ourselves to be enslaved by "modern forms of captivity"- stifling cities, unescapable technology, social media, advertisements, the beauty industry, fast-food... Vast natural landscapes, in particular, have been found to reduce anxiety and depression as they remind us how small and insignificant our problems and lives are in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes this can be a useful reminder. As Hari says, "becoming depressed or anxious is a process of becoming a prisoner of your ego"; in these states the world dizzyingly and claustrophobically revolves around the self. Being in the natural world can free us from the entrapments of our own minds.
It seems we have absentmindedly embarked on a global experiment to see if humans can survive alone, disconnected from all that we have evolved to rely on for health and happiness. The results are in: we can, but at a detrimental cost to our mental health.
If you're quite fine living in the shambles of modern-day 2019, where abortion has just been banned in Alabama, Donald Trump is president of the USA, and the UK has spent the last three years bickering over Brexit, then, quite frankly, it seems more likely that you are the crazy one.
What I am trying to say is, life is hard. Increasingly so. Becoming depressed or anxious are valid responses. But that doesn't mean to say we just accept this new way of living.
What we need, says Hari, are "social or psychological antidepressants in the form of reconnection" - and this is what I'll be exploring in my next blog post: the solutions.
If you take anything away from this rather lengthy and mind-boggling blog post, let it be this: the rise of depression and anxiety lies in the lives we lead. This means that it is in our control to prevent, reduce and confront this epidemic. Whereas up until now people with depression and anxiety have felt a sense of helplessness in being discouraged from taking responsibility for their 'uncontrollable' ill health, through Lost Connections Hari empowers us to find hope and take charge of our lives and therefore our minds, the two of which are inextricably connected.