Okay, the subtitle of this book is "Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions," which had me intrigued when it was first mentioned in the book feed of micro.blog. I'm not going to say no to reading a theory about Depression, especially when it comes with a promise of solutions.
The book starts off with the author's tale of his depression and time on anti-depressants and how his therapist keeps telling him he still sounds depressed. He insists no, he's not, but the therapist keeps repeating he still sounds depressed. No way!
The author goes on and keeps having include links to his references. Some of the references were really odd, "the audio of this conversation has been confirmed by my publisher" and "so and so recalled this the same way" kind of weird. Turns out, the author had previously been caught plagarizing himself and making stuff up, so he needed to be extra cautious in his books.
So, read with a bit of caution. Sure.
Except the studies and examples and anedcotes and stories and and and yeah, some of it isn't science but some of that not-science just... feels... right... as true, as something someone depressed needs to try when they want out of the cycle and want to heal, want to be whole.
Basic premise: we have lost the connections to our values, to ourselves, to our community, to our world. Without those connections, we are lost, we lack meaning, direction, purpose. Discover, embrace, and nurture those connection and the depression can be lifted.
It's very much along the lines of helping others can help oneself. We need our tribe, we need our community, we need nature (the green, the forests, the paths, the hiking, the sun, the water, the clean air), we need purpose. As long as we keep ignoring these connections, we perpetuate the cycle. Going it alone, as is the western culture's attitude, won't work, as being alone is a cause.
So, yeah, depression a thing in your life? Not the sadness thing, not the grief thing, the depression thing? "Why wouldn't you do anything you could to prevent it?" This book is a good start. Strongly recommended, might change your life.
It was only years later—in the course of writing this book—that somebody pointed out to me all the questions my doctor didn’t ask that day. Like: Is there any reason you might feel so distressed? What’s been happening in your life? Is there anything hurting you that we might want to change?
No matter how high a dose I jacked up my antidepressants to, the sadness would always outrun it.
I was doing everything right, and yet something was still wrong.
You can’t escape it: when scientists test the water supply of Western countries, they always find it is laced with antidepressants, because so many of us are taking them and excreting them that they simply can’t be filtered out of the water we drink every day. 9 We are literally awash in these drugs.
Once you settle into a story about your pain, you are extremely reluctant to challenge it.
Unhappiness and depression are totally different things. There is nothing more infuriating to a depressed person than to be told to cheer up, or to be offered jolly little solutions as if they were merely having a bad week.
At that time, the English doctor had realized that when you give a patient a medical treatment, you are really giving her two things. You are giving her a drug, which will usually have a chemical effect on her body in some way. And you are giving her a story—about how the treatment will affect her.
Somebody once told me that giving a person a story about why they are in pain is one of the most powerful things you can ever do.
The grief exception revealed something that the authors of the DSM — the distillation of mainstream psychiatric thinking — were deeply uncomfortable with. They had been forced to admit, in their own official manual, that it’s reasonable — and perhaps even necessary — to show the symptoms of depression, in one set of circumstances.
As Joanne Cacciatore researched the grief exception in more detail, she came to believe it revealed a basic mistake our culture is making about pain, way beyond grief. We don’t, she told me, “consider context.” We act like human distress can be assessed solely on a checklist that can be separated out from our lives, and labeled as brain diseases.
“Why do we call it mental health?” she asked me. “Because we want to scientize it. We want to make it sound scientific. But it’s our emotions.”
Jo sat on the floor, and held her, and let the pain come out, and after it did, the mother felt some relief, for a time, because she knew she was not alone.
Sometimes, that is the most we can do.
It’s a lot.
And sometimes, when you listen to the pain and you see it in its context, it will point you to a way beyond it — as I learned later.
What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief — for our own lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?
This meant, he told me, that he arrived at the psychiatric treatment center he was going to work out of in South London “completely ignorant” of what you are supposed to think about something like depression, and he now believes “that was a great advantage. I had no preconceived ideas [so] I was forced to have an open mind.”
They labeled the first category “difficulties” — which they defined as a chronic ongoing problem, which could range from having a bad marriage, to living in bad housing, to being forced to move away from your community and neighborhood.
The second category looked at the exact opposite — “stabilizers,” the things that they suspected could boost you and protect you from despair. For that, they carefully recorded how many close friends the women had, and how good their relationships with their partners were.
For every good friend you had, or if your partner was more supportive and caring, it reduced depression by a remarkable amount.
So George and Tirril had discovered that two things make depression much more likely — having a severe negative event, and having long-term sources of stress and insecurity in your life.
For example — if you didn’t have any friends, and you didn’t have a supportive partner, your chances of developing depression when a severe negative life event came along were 75 percent. 12 It was much more likely than not.
We all lose some hope when we’re subjected to severe stress, or when something horrible happens to us, but if the stress or the bad events are sustained over a long period, what you get is “the generalization of hopelessness,” Tirril told me.
I realized every one of the social and psychological causes of depression and anxiety they have discovered has something in common. They are all forms of disconnection. They are all ways in which we have been cut off from something we innately need but seem to have lost along the way.
“When work is enriching, life is fuller, and that spills over into the things you do outside work,” he said to me. But “when it’s deadening,” you feel “shattered at the end of the day, just shattered.”
“Disempowerment,” Michael told me, “is at the heart of poor health” — physical, mental, and emotional.
Despair often happens, he had learned, when there is a “lack of balance between efforts and rewards.”
Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog.
It’s worth repeating. Being deeply lonely seemed to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.
If you do that, you always find that lonely people are much more likely to be depressed or anxious. But that doesn’t get us very far — because depressed and anxious people often become afraid of the world, and of social interaction, so they tend to retreat from it.
It turned out that — for the initial five years of data that have been studied so far — in most cases, loneliness preceded depressive symptoms. 8 You became lonely, and that was followed by feelings of despair and profound sadness and depression. And the effect was really big.
Humans need tribes as much as bees need a hive.
Or, as he told me later: loneliness is “an aversive state that motivates us to reconnect.”
Anywhere in the world where people describe being lonely, they will also — throughout their sleep — experience more of something called “micro-awakenings.” These are small moments you won’t recall when you wake up, but in which you rise a little from your slumber.
The best theory is that you don’t feel safe going to sleep when you’re lonely, because early humans literally weren’t safe if they were sleeping apart from the tribe. You know nobody’s got your back — so your brain won’t let you go into full sleep mode. Measuring these “micro-awakenings” is a good way of measuring loneliness.
This showed that loneliness isn’t just some inevitable human sadness, like death. It’s a product of the way we live now.
What this means is that people’s sense that they live in a community, or even have friends they can count on, has been plummeting.
“How many confidants do you have?” They wanted to know how many people you could turn to in a crisis, or when something really good happens to you.
Lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they are hurt.
To end loneliness, you need other people — plus something else. You also need, he explained to me, to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you.
The Internet arrived promising us connection at the very moment when all the wider forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.
When he got a job as a software developer and he was given an assignment that made him feel pressured, he found himself endlessly chasing down Internet rabbit holes. He would have three hundred tabs open at any given time.
If you’re a typical Westerner in the twenty-first century, you check your phone once every six and a half minutes. If you’re a teenager, you send on average a hundred texts a day. And 42 percent of us never turn off our phones. Ever.
The compulsive Internet use, she was saying, was a dysfunctional attempt to try to solve the pain they were already in, caused in part by feeling alone in the world.
The difference between being online and being physically among people, I saw in that moment, is a bit like the difference between pornography and sex: it addresses a basic itch, but it’s never satisfying.
There’s a quote from the biologist E. O. Wilson that John Cacioppo — who has taught us so much about loneliness — likes: “People must belong to a tribe.”
Just like a bee goes haywire if it loses its hive, a human will go haywire if she loses her connection to the group.
I asked Tim if, in Pinellas County where he grew up, he ever heard anyone talking about a different way of valuing things, beyond the idea that happiness came from getting and possessing stuff. “Well — I think — not growing up. No,” he said.
It really did seem that materialistic people were having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They felt sicker, and they were angrier. “Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits,” he was starting to believe, “actually affected the participants’ day-to-day lives, and decreased the quality of their daily experience.” They experienced less joy, and more despair.
Ever since the 1960s, psychologists have known that there are two different ways you can motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning. The first are called intrinsic motives — they are the things you do purely because you value them in and of themselves, not because of anything you get out of them.
And there’s a rival set of values, which are called extrinsic motives. They’re the things you do not because you actually want to do them, but because you’ll get something in return — whether it’s money, or admiration, or sex, or superior status.
He got them to lay out their goals for the future. He then figured out with them if these were extrinsic goals — like getting a promotion, or a bigger apartment — or intrinsic goals, like being a better friend or a more loving son or a better piano player.
But people who achieved their intrinsic goals did become significantly happier, and less depressed and anxious. You could track the movement. As they worked at it and felt they became (for example) a better friend — not because they wanted anything out of it but because they felt it was a good thing to do — they became more satisfied with life. Being a better dad? Dancing for the sheer joy of it? Helping another person, just because it’s the right thing to do? They do significantly boost your happiness.
The first is that thinking extrinsically poisons your relationships with other people.
[T]hey found that the more materialistic you become, the shorter your relationships will be, and the worse their quality will be.
There’s strong scientific evidence that we all get most pleasure from what are called “flow states” 13 like this — moments when we simply lose ourselves doing something we love and are carried along in the moment.
... highly materialistic people, he discovered they experience significantly fewer flow states than the rest of us.
When you are extremely materialistic, Tim said to me, “you’ve always kind of got to be wondering about yourself — how are people judging you?” It forces you to “focus on other people’s opinions of you, and their praise of you — and then you’re kind of locked into having to worry what other people think about you, and if other people are going to give you those rewards that you want.
What you really need are connections. But what you are told you need, in our culture, is stuff and a superior status, and in the gap between those two signals — from yourself and from society — depression and anxiety will grow as your real needs go unmet.
So if you become fixated on getting stuff and a superior status, the parts of the pie that care about tending to your relationships, or finding meaning, or making the world better have to shrink, to make way.
And the pressure, in our culture, runs overwhelmingly one way — spend more; work more.
Tim suspected that advertising plays a key role in why we are, every day, choosing a value system that makes us feel worse.
“Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser."
This system trains us, Tim says, to feel “there’s never enough. When you’re focused on money and status and possessions, consumer society is always telling you more, more, more, more. Capitalism is always telling you more, more, more. Your boss is telling you work more, work more, work more. You internalize that and you think: Oh, I got to work more, because my self depends on my status and my achievement. You internalize that. It’s a kind of form of internalized oppression.”
“You’ve got to pull yourself out of the materialistic environments — the environments that are reinforcing the materialistic values,” he says, because they cripple your internal satisfactions. And then, he says, to make that sustainable, you have to “replace them with actions that are going to provide those intrinsic satisfactions, [and] encourage those intrinsic goals.”
I ask him if he had withdrawal symptoms from the materialistic world we were both immersed in for so long. “Never,” he says right away. “People ask me that: “Don’t you miss this? Don’t you wish you had that?” No, I don’t, because [I am] never exposed to the messages telling me that I should want it.
By living without these polluting values, Tim has, he says, discovered a secret. This way of life is more pleasurable than materialism.
Joe is constantly bombarded with messages that he shouldn’t do the thing that his heart is telling him would make him feel calm and satisfied. The whole logic of our culture tells him to stay on the consumerist treadmill, to go shopping when he feels lousy, to chase junk values. He has been immersed in those messages since the day he was born. So he has been trained to distrust his own wisest instincts.
Many of these women had been making themselves obese for an unconscious reason: to protect themselves from the attention of men, who they believed would hurt them.
They needed someone to understand why they ate.
Many scientists and psychologists had been presenting depression as an irrational malfunction in your brain or in your genes, but he learned that Allen Barbour, an internist at Stanford University, 15 had said that depression isn’t a disease; depression is a normal response to abnormal life experiences.
Some people don’t want to see this because, at least at first, “it’s more comforting,” Vincent said, to think it’s all happening simply because of changes in the brain. “It takes away an experiential process and substitutes a mechanistic process.” It turns your pain into a trick of the light that can be banished with drugs.
If you believe that your depression is due solely to a broken brain, you don’t have to think about your life, or about what anyone might have done to you.
Magic pill to fix everything!
When you are a child and you experience something really traumatic, you almost always think it is your fault. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not irrational; like obesity, it is, in fact, a solution to a problem most people can’t see.
When you’re a child, you have very little power to change your environment. You can’t move away, or force somebody to stop hurting you. So you have two choices. You can admit to yourself that you are powerless — that at any moment, you could be badly hurt, and there’s simply nothing you can do about it. Or you can tell yourself it’s your fault.
In this way, just like obesity protected those women from the men they feared would rape them, blaming yourself for your childhood traumas protects you from seeing how vulnerable you were and are. You can become the powerful one. If it’s your fault, it’s under your control.
“When people have these kind of problems, it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with them,” he said, “and time to start asking what happened to them.”
It’s hard to describe what depression and acute anxiety feel like. They are such disorientating states that they seem to escape language, but we have a few clichés that we return to.
If you’re a female baboon, you inherit your place in the hierarchy from your mother, as if you were a posh Englishman in the Middle Ages, but if you’re a male baboon, your place is established through a brutal conflict to see who can clamber to the top.
While I understand this is how it is, I'm still fully annoyed at how much in nature and our society being female is being second class.
When Solomon was lying on a rock with one of the hottest babes of the troop, Uriah walked up in between them and started trying to have sex with her — right in front of the boss-man.
Robert had discovered that having an insecure status was the one thing even more distressing than having a low status.
The more unequal your society, the more prevalent all forms of mental illness are.
It’s hard for a hungry animal moving through its natural habitat and with a decent status in its group to be depressed, she says — there are almost no records of such a thing.
all humans have a natural sense of something called “biophilia.” It’s an innate love for the landscapes in which humans have lived for most of our existence, and for the natural web of life that surrounds us and makes our existence possible.
When you are depressed — as Isabel knows from her own experience — you feel that “now everything is about you.” You become trapped in your own story and your own thoughts, and they rattle around in your head with a dull, bitter insistence. Becoming depressed or anxious is a process of becoming a prisoner of your ego, where no air from the outside can get in.
Faced with a natural landscape, you have a sense that you and your concerns are very small, and the world is very big — and that sensation can shrink the ego down to a manageable size.
But the research is very hard to find funding for, he said, because “a lot of the shape of modern biomedical research has been defined by the pharmaceutical industry,” and they’re not interested because “it’s very hard to commercialize nature contact.” You can’t sell it, so they don’t want to know.
The lesson the depressed bonobos had taught her, she said, is: “Don’t be in captivity. Fuck captivity.”
Especially if the prison is of your own making.
The cruelest thing about depression, she said, is that it drains you of the desire to be as fully alive as this — to swallow experience whole.
How do you develop your sense of identity? How do you know who you are? It seems like an impossibly big question. But ask yourself this: What is the connecting thread that runs from your baby self, vomiting out teething biscuits, to the person who is reading this book now? Will you be the same person twenty years from now? If you met her, would you recognize her? What is the relationship between you in the past and you in the future? Are you the same person all along?
A sense of a positive future protects you. If life is bad today, you can think — this hurts, but it won’t hurt forever. But when it is taken away, it can feel like your pain will never go away.
I took her for a long lunch, and she started to tell me the story of her life since we last met, 10 in a hurried gabble punctuated by her apologizing a lot, although it was never quite clear what for.
We give it a fancy name: we call it being “self-employed,” or the “gig economy” —
For most of us, a stable sense of the future is dissolving, and we are told to see it as a form of liberation.
It made intuitive sense to her, she said. When you have a stable picture of yourself in the future, she explained, what it gives you is “perspective — doesn’t it? You are able to say — ‘ Okay, I’m having a shitty day. But I’m not having a shitty life.’
When I told Marc that I had been given antidepressants for thirteen years and had always been told that all my distress had been caused by a problem inside my brain, he said: “It’s crazy. It’s always related to your life and your personal circumstances.”
Because you are feeling intense pain for a long period, your brain will assume this is the state in which you are going to have to survive from now on — so it might start to shed the synapses that relate to the things that give you joy and pleasure, and strengthen the synapses that relate to fear and despair.
The pain caused by life going wrong can trigger a response that is “so powerful that [the brain] tends to stay there [in a pained response] for a while, until something pushes it out of that corner, into a more flexible place.”
Everyone reading this will know somebody who became depressed, or anxious, yet seemingly had nothing to be unhappy about.
Yet now, if we could go back in a time machine and talk to these women, what we’d say is: You had everything a woman could possibly want by the standards of the culture. You had nothing to be unhappy about by the standards of the culture. But we now know that the standards of the culture were wrong. Women need more than a house and a car and a husband and kids. They need equality, and meaningful work, and autonomy. You aren’t broken, we’d tell them. The culture
You can have everything a person could possibly need by the standards of our culture — but those standards can badly misjudge what a human actually needs in order to have a good or even a tolerable life. The culture can create a picture of what you “need” to be happy — through all the junk values I had been taught about — that doesn’t fit with what you actually need. 19
For a long time, we have been told there are only two ways of thinking about depression. Either it’s a moral failing — a sign of weakness — or it’s a brain disease.
[T]here’s a third option — to regard depression as largely a reaction to the way we are living.
One reason why is that it is “much more politically challenging” 25 to say that so many people are feeling terrible because of how our societies now work. It fits much more with our system of “neoliberal capitalism,” he told me, to say, “Okay, we’ll get you functioning more efficiently, but please don’t start questioning … because that’s going to destabilize all sorts of things.”
Dr. Rufus May, a British psychologist, told me that telling people their distress is due mostly or entirely to a biological malfunction has several dangerous effects on them. The first thing that happens when you’re told this is “you leave the person disempowered, feeling they’re not good enough — because their brain’s not good enough.” The second thing is, he said, that “it pitches us against parts of ourselves.” It says there is a war taking place in your head. On one side there are your feelings of distress, caused by the malfunctions in your brain or genes. On the other side there’s the sane part of you.
But it does something even more profound than that. It tells you that your distress has no meaning — it’s just defective tissue.
He sometimes quotes the Eastern philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, 26 who explained: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.”
To them, an antidepressant wasn’t about changing your brain chemistry, an idea that seemed bizarre to their culture. It was about the community, together, empowering the depressed person to change his life.
What if changing the way we live — in specific, targeted, evidence-based ways — could be seen as an antidepressant, too?
When they lived in Turkey, the women there had referred to their entire village as “home.” And when they came to Germany, they learned that what you are supposed to think of as home is your own four walls and the space within them — a pinched, shriveled sense of home.
They had made themselves public. And it was only by doing that — by being released into something bigger than themselves — that they had found a release from their pain.
We met in a coffee shop in downtown Berkeley, which is seen by the outside world as a font of left-wing radicalism, but on my way to meet her, I passed lots of young homeless people, all begging, all being ignored.
Yeah, having recently passed the armies of homeless in Berkeley, I know this view.
If you decide to pursue happiness in the United States or Britain, you pursue it for yourself — because you think that’s how it works. You do what I did most of the time: you get stuff for yourself, you rack up achievement for yourself, you build up your own ego. But if you consciously pursue happiness in Russia or Japan or China, you do something quite different. You try to make things better for your group — for the people around you. That’s what you think happiness means, so it seems obvious to you.
Yet if I’m honest, that’s the kind of solution I craved. Something individual; something you can do alone, without any effort; something that takes twenty seconds to swallow every morning, so you can get on with life as it was before. If it couldn’t be chemical, I wanted some other trick, some switch I could flip to make it all fine.
Now, when I feel myself starting to slide down, I don’t do something for myself — I try to do something for someone else.
I learned something I wouldn’t have thought was possible at the start. Even if you are in pain, you can almost always make someone else feel a little bit better.
When you went to see your doctor, you didn’t just get pills. You were prescribed one of over a hundred different ways to reconnect — with the people around you, with the society, and with values that really matter.
Most people come to their doctor because they are distressed. Even when you have a physical pain — like a bad knee — that will feel far worse if you have nothing else in your life, and no connections.
He says he has learned, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to “What matters to you?”
It’s not the work itself that makes you sick. It’s three other things. It’s the feeling of being controlled — of being a meaningless cog in a system. It’s the feeling that no matter how hard you work, you’ll be treated just the same and nobody will notice — an imbalance, as he puts it, between efforts and rewards. And it’s the feeling of being low on the hierarchy — of being a low-status person who doesn’t matter compared to the Big Man in the corner office.
Our politicians are constantly singing hymns to democracy as the best system — this is simply the extension of democracy to the place where we spend most of our time. Josh says it’s an amazing victory for their propaganda system — to make you work in an environment you often can’t stand, and to do it for most of your waking life, and see the proceeds of your labor get siphoned off by somebody at the top, and then to make you “think of yourself as a free person.”
From this experience, she has learned that “people want to work. Everybody wants to work. Everybody wants to feel useful, and have purpose.” 5 The humiliation and control of so many workplaces can suppress that, or drive it out of people, but it’s always there, and it reemerges in the right environment. People “want to feel like they’ve had an impact on other humans — that they’ve improved the world in some way.”
It made me think: Imagine if we had a tough advertising regulator who wouldn’t permit ads designed to make us feel bad in any way. How many ads would survive?
As they explored this in the conversation, it became clear quite quickly — without any prompting from Nathan — that spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better.
Just asking these two questions — “What do you spend your money on?” and “What do you really value?” — made most people see a gap between the answers that they began to discuss. They were accumulating and spending money on things that were not — in the end — the things that they believed in their heart mattered. Why would that be?
He learned that the average American is exposed to up to five thousand advertising impressions a day — from billboards to logos on T-shirts to TV advertisements. It is the sea in which we swim. And “the narrative is that if you [buy] this thing, it’ll yield more happiness — and so thousands of times a day you’re just surrounded with that message,” he told me.
He began to ask: “Who’s shaping that narrative?” It’s not people who have actually figured out what will make us happy and who are charitably spreading the good news. It’s people who have one motive only — to make us buy their product.
At the next session, he asked the people in the experiment to do a short exercise in which everyone had to list a consumer item they felt they had to have right away. They had to describe what it was, how they first heard about it, why they craved it, how they felt when they got it, and how they felt after they’d had it for a while. For many people, as they talked this through, something became obvious. The pleasure was often in the craving and anticipation. We’ve all had the experience of finally getting the thing we want, getting it home, and feeling oddly deflated, only to find that before long, the craving cycle starts again.
But as she began to read about envy, she realized that our culture was priming her to feel this way. She had been raised to constantly compete and compare, she said. “We’re highly individualistic,” she explained, and we’re constantly told that life is a “zero sum game.
There’s only so many pieces of the pie, so if somebody else has success, or beauty, or whatever, somehow it leaves less for you.
We are trained to think that life is a fight for scarce resources — “ even if it’s for something like intelligence, when there’s no limit to how much human intelligence can grow across the world.” If you become smarter, it doesn’t make me less smart — but we are primed to feel that it does.
And she discovered an ancient technique called “sympathetic joy,” which is part of a range of techniques for which there is some striking new scientific evidence. It is, she says, quite simple. Sympathetic joy is a method for cultivating “the opposite of jealousy or envy … It’s simply feeling happy for other people.”
She was surprised that she could change in this way. “You think that certain things aren’t malleable,” she says, but “they completely are. You can be a total jealous monster, and you think that’s just part of who you are, and you find you can change it [by just] doing some basic thing.”
“I’ve pursued happiness for myself my whole life, and I’m exhausted, and I don’t feel any closer to it — because where does it end? The bar just keeps getting moved.” But this different way of thinking, she said, seemed to offer a real sense of pleasure, and a path away from the depressing, anxiety-provoking thoughts she’d been plagued by.
“There’s always going to be shit coming into your life to be unhappy about. If you can be happy for others, there’s always going to be a supply of happiness available to you.
She’s conscious that to many people, this would sound like a philosophy for losers — you can’t make it, so you have to get a thrill when somebody else does. You’ll lose your edge. You’ll fall behind in the constant race for success. But Rachel thinks this is a false dichotomy. Why can’t you be happy for other people and for yourself? Why would being eaten with envy make you stronger?
He also brought a chestnut he had found on the ground the day his divorce came through, which he had kept, though he didn’t know why.
They both, he said, break our “addiction to ourselves.”
As Fred put it to me, these experiences teach you that “you don’t have to be controlled by your concept of yourself.”
“You could say people have forgotten who they are, what they’re capable of, have gotten stuck … Many depressed people can only see their pains, and their hurts, and their resentments, and their failures. They can’t see the blue sky and the yellow leaves, you know?” This process of opening consciousness up again can disrupt that — and so it disrupts depression. It takes down the walls of your ego and opens you to connecting with what matters.
Our egos protect us. They guard us. They are necessary. But when they grow too big, they cut us off from the possibility of connection. Taking them down, then, isn’t something to be done casually.
There is a great deal of evidence — as I discussed before — that a sense of humiliation plays a big role in depression.
“Time and again,” he said, “we blame a collective problem on the individual. So you’re depressed? You should get a pill. You don’t have a job? Go to a job coach — we’ll teach you how to write a résumé or [to join] LinkedIn. But obviously, that doesn’t go to the root of the problem … Not many people are thinking about what’s actually happened to our labor market, and our society, that these [forms of despair] are popping up everywhere.” Even middle-class people are living with a chronic “lack of certainty” about what their lives will be like in even a few months’ time, he says.
Rutger told me: “When I ask people — ‘ What would you [personally] do with a basic income?’ about 99 percent of people say — ‘ I have dreams, I have ambitions, I’m going to do something ambitious and useful.’” But when he asks them what they think other people would do with a basic income, they say — oh, they’ll become lifeless zombies, they’ll binge-watch Netflix all day.
Every single person reading this is the beneficiary of big civilizing social changes that seemed impossible when somebody first proposed them.
The response to a huge crisis isn’t to go home and weep. It’s to go big. It’s to demand something that seems impossible — and not rest until you’ve achieved it.
It’s a sign, Rutger says, of how badly off track we’ve gone, that having fulfilling work is seen as a freakish exception, like winning the lottery, instead of how we should all be living.
Depression and anxiety have three kinds of causes — biological, psychological, and social. They are all real, and none of these three can be described by something as crude as the idea of a chemical imbalance.
The United Nations — in its official statement for World Health Day in 2017 — explained3 that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “cause more harm than good, undermine the right to health, and must be abandoned.”
You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated.
I know this is going to be hard to hear, I’d tell him, because I know how deep your suffering cuts. But this pain isn’t your enemy, however much it hurts (and Jesus, I know how much it hurts). It’s your ally — leading you away from a wasted life and pointing the way toward a more fulfilling one.
We have lost faith in the idea of anything bigger or more meaningful than the individual, and the accumulation of more and more stuff.
Depression and anxiety might, in one way, be the sanest reaction you have. 6 It’s a signal, saying — you shouldn’t have to live this way, and if you aren’t helped to find a better path, you will be missing out on so much that is best about being human.