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It’s generally accepted wisdom that people are more anxious and unhappy today than in the past, and that this is a result of the busy, stressed modern world we all live in. That pressure and stress has led to record levels of depression and anxiety.
Perhaps that’s true. But walking through the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley made me realize how uncertain life was even a hundred years ago. The grounds are filled with tombs of people cut down in the prime of life — 20’s and 30’s — not to mention dozens of children’s graves as well. So when we talk about the stress of today’s world, surely there’s no comparison. After all, what could be more stressful than seeing your friends and family members regularly die at young ages, to lose your wife in childbirth, or see your infant pass away — and then another infant? All the while knowing that you could be struck down yourself at any time with diseases whose transmission and origin were a complete mystery. Surely these earlier generations would have far more anxiety and unhappiness than us. There has never been a generation as free from the danger of premature illness, death and loss than us.
And yet, here we are, depressed, anxious and miserable despite the relative safety and security of our world. We’re then told that the answer to these problems lie within us, that we must take anti-depressants, or anti-anxiety medication, or stimulants to fix our brains because we have a chemical imbalance. But perhaps it’s not what’s going on inside us that’s warped. Neither is it the pace of modern life. Instead, as Johann Hari argues in his recent book Lost Connections, it is our isolation, isolation which is a result of lost connections.
What does Hari say we’ve lost? He offers a number of things, but three of the critical ones are connections to each other, to solid values and to meaningful work.
Connections to each other
Research shows that loneliness is extremely stressful, causing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, to soar in our bloodstream. Hari says “Being deeply lonely seemed to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.” Isolated people are more likely to get physically ill, and more likely to die. Being lonely, it turns out, has the same effect on your health and mortality as being obese. And it also has an effect on how depressed you feel. In an experiment with isolated people, making them feel more connected to others significantly reduced their depression, while making them feel disconnected made them significantly more depressed.
Being disconnected from each other not only makes people feel depressed, it also increases anxiety. Another experiment showed that isolated people were much quicker to sense threats than those who were socially connected. They were on edge, ready to see danger even when there wasn’t any.
This all makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. An isolated individual in pre-historic times (and even more recently) was extremely vulnerable, and probably didn’t last long. Natural selection would shape us to find isolation very unpleasant, and to keep us on high alert for danger when we are isolated.
Connections to solid values
It’s a truism that we live in a materialistic world. We’re bombarded with messages that what really counts is stuff: cars, houses, clothes, jewelry. Hari describes studies which have shown a correlation between the level of interest in acquiring things and unhappiness — the more you focused on things, the less likely you were to be happy. Comparing our junk values (possessions, status, wealth) to junk food Hari says, “Materialism is KFC for the soul”.
Why is it that having materialistic values makes us unhappy? Perhaps it’s because valuing things drives us apart from other people. We acquire things and show them off, which rarely endears us to others. Or we fail to acquire things and envy others who do. Either way, it’s hard to feel connected to another person when the main topic of conversation is stuff. And so our junk values leave us disconnected from others.
Connections to meaningful work
We all need a role in society, whether paid or not, out of the home or in it. Too often, we feel our role is not recognized, respected or meaningful. Sometimes — most often in organizations — we feel we’re not in control of our work life and that we are just a cog in a wheel. Doing something you like, that is useful to the world, where you get respect and where you have a level of control over what you do, how you do it and when you do it is a great antidote to depression.
I could end this article with a to-do list of what we all need to do in order to avoid anxiety and depression. But we’re all too different for there to be some cookie cutter approach to this. Each of us, in our own way, has to find meaningful work, solid values, and a way to connect to other people. Our happiness and our health depends upon it.