Johann Hari has experienced depression since his early teens. He took antidepressants, it went away for a while, but then came back stronger so he increased his dosage. But what if antidepressants weren’t the answer? Lost Connections is an account of Hari’s journey of understanding. It takes in bike repair cooperatives, Native American reservations, squats in Berlin, gardening projects in London and researchers looking at the social determinants of depression.
For Hari, the way in which we structure society creates conditions where depression is the most likely outcome for millions. The structure of the book gives the first half an unfortunate resemblance to a clickbait headline, each chapter setting up a proposition—people get fed up at work, childhood trauma makes adult life hard—only to reveal “researchers carried out an experiment and what they found will shock you.”
The extent to which Hari’s narrative will shock depends on whether the reader has engaged with any popular texts about inequality, social relationships and the search for meaning in the last 20 years. There’s a bit of The Spirit Level, a bit of Bowling Alone, a bit of Michael Marmot. “Junk values” of individualism, materialism, alienation from meaning and lack of connection to others, concludes Hari, go against our fundamental nature as social animals.
Lost Connections is like a long TED Talk: engaging, emphatic but somehow unsatisfying. In his zeal, Hari overstates the consensus he claims to be overturning. Questions about shame and trauma are soon trampled in the rush to arrive at an answer.
The revolutionary conclusion that Hari arrives at—by overthrowing the orthodoxy that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance—is not too distant from the conclusion of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. When Hari asks “Who is responsible for depression?” his answer is: “we all are.”
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99