Johann Hari comes close to discovering the root cause of depression (and anxiety, anger, etc.) but unfortunately, no cigar. Yes, external circumstances such as employment, housing and relationships are involved, as triggers. But triggers, as the word indicates, trigger another crucial factor: the energy generated by our survival-instinct, showing up in our body as feelings, in response to transient, often undetectable THOUGHTS.
I humbly submit to you, what if our connections aren't lost, we just THINK they are?
The above article states that in the '70s, as a result of the release of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), "All over the world, (doctors) were being encouraged to tell patients that depression is, in fact, just the result of a spontaneous chemical imbalance in your brain".
The key word here is "spontaneous". The spontaneity-factor is due to the rapid, almost-instant message received by the brain as a direct result of a thought ABOUT the external circumstance. The external person/event innocently triggers a thought (sourced from the conditioned 'Lizard'/survival memory-bank), which spontaneously produces the chemical, which spontaneously produces the feeling in the body. This feeling then leads to "depression" which includes behaviours (staying in bed, becoming isolated, more unhelpful thinking), which then cumulatively lead to results (lack of connection, more unhelpful thinking, job loss, even suicide).
Medication works initially, for some, not all, for this reason. Yes, a chemical imbalance is produced by out-of-control, unchecked thought energy, but medication deals with the chemicals, not the thoughts. Over time, the brain finds a way to allow the thoughts (survival-instinct message) through, circumventing the medication. The message is: "Come to the present moment! Something has happened, you might need to fight or flee, something has to change, or you'll die!" But in modern times, even when there is NO actual immediate danger, these uncomfortable feelings are sending the simple message: "Careful! You're thinking something that might be unhelpful!"
Back in the '70s, Sydney Banks, a 9th-grade-educated welder born in Scotland, identified "Thought" as the "missing link" between external circumstances and feelings. Hari's article unwittingly provides three clear examples of this truth:
1) Hari declares, "We need to feel we have a secure future (to be happy.") However, there are people WITHOUT a secure future who feel happy nonetheless. Rather than thinking about an uncertain future, they have accrued different thoughts, for example, "I am free to adjust to whatever the future brings", or, "Security is an illusion: non-one knows what tomorrow may bring, so I must focus on making the most of today!" If a secure future were necessary for happiness and wellbeing, then EVERYONE would need a secure future to feel happy, and NO ONE with a (supposed) secure future would feel unhappy at any time, both of which are untrue.
2) Hari goes on to say, "Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you can’t create meaning out of your work." If that were true, 100% of people who are controlled in their work would not be able to find meaning in their work and would subsequently feel depressed. But this obviously isn't true. People who are "controlled" can have thoughts based on meaning, or gratitude, or any number of positive affects and will feel happy whilst undertaking supposed "meaningless" work. And people with seemingly total control over their work environment would be happy 100% of the time. Clearly, this isn't the case either.
3) Professor John Cacioppo of Chicago University taught Hari that, "Being acutely lonely is as stressful as being punched in the face by a stranger – and massively increases your risk of depression." Chances are, you actually know someone who lives alone who is content, if not happy! Why? Because they have different thinking about being alone, resulting in a different experience. Similarly, if it were the "aloneness" directly causing the stress and depression, they would be stressed and/or depressed 100% of the time, because the aloneness would be true 100% of the time. Consider this: how are they feeling when they're not thinking about it?!
When we (innocently) attribute our feelings to an external circumstance or person's behaviour, it follows that we will look for an external cure: medication, a new job, moving house, etc. We would be seeking to change a virtually uncontrollable world, eventually feeling exhausted and powerless. But we are miraculous, perfectly-designed creatures! It doesn't make sense that our wellbeing is dependent on the oft impossible task of aligning countless, uncontrollable ducks!
Even more importantly, the problem isn't lost connections, it's a failure to see that we are all already connected. As John Donne famously expressed,"No man is an island". He didn't say, "Man feels unhappy when he's isolated from others". He said no man IS an island. We haven't lost our connections. With the innocent, yet powerful, rise of the ego and the idea of self, we've developed the belief that we ARE separate islands and forgotten that we're not.
So, how are we connected exactly?
- By our common humanity. We are all human beings.
- By our shared experience of being different to everyone else. We are each experiencing the world from our own unique perspective.
- By our shared history. Our ancestors influenced each other on countless levels, both good and bad.
- By our physical environment. Especially now that we are a global community, we are all living in the same "jungle".
- By the air we breath - think about it! My last breath could be part of your next!
- On a scientific level, atoms are 99% space... and we are made up of atoms... hence, we are are 99% space! If we are the atoms and the space they are made of, where exactly does one person end and another begin?
- Lastly and most importantly IMHO, we are connected by our conscious awareness. We are all conscious, we all aware, of each other and of this beautiful world around us. Our behaviour directly changes the experience of those around us. We are all in this together.
If we think that we are are an island, that we are isolated, alone, we will feel the feelings associated with that thought. But when we really see that we are already connected on so many levels, like anything learned (or remembered!) by our brain, it will inform our behaviour and our experience of the world will automatically change, for the better.
As Hari mentioned, the United Nations is right: "The biased and selective use of research outcomes must be abandoned." Additionally, "Finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place" is useful, but not the complete picture. Rather than focusing more on “power imbalances” as the UN suggests, we each need to gather evidence of the role that our own innocent, subconscious thinking plays in our experience of life "in the moment". We need to "see" the reality of our shared experience.
When we see our connection to those around us, including family, neighbours and our community, (both local and global) our fear-based survival-instinct can be safely relegated to our subconscious where it belongs. As a result, anger, blame, sadness and fear are reduced and creativity, cooperation, joy, peace and love, our "true nature" (have you hung out with a one-year-old lately?) are increased.
We can use our feelings as the message for which they were intended: to come to the present moment. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, "Now is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power." Only in this moment, free of fear and full of love, can we choose what's truly best for our common survival.
Lastly, importantly and urgently, we need to educate our children in this truth. With this simple, logical, fundamental understanding, humans can feel connected no matter what their circumstances and create the life and future they desire, by creatively responding to the actual present moment, rather than reacting to the unhelpful, repetitive, conditioned thinking generated by their survival instinct.
The future of our species might very well depend on it.
Counsellor, Writer and Educator
Sandy would genuinely love to hear your thoughts and answer any questions.
You can email Sandy here.