Non-Pharmaceutical Anti-Depressants and Environmental Causes of Depression: Johann Hari’s Lost Connections

Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, is one of the very best things I read in 2022. It’s one of those unusual gems you find, that make you want to tell everyone about it, but because it’s so rich and deep, it’s very difficult to convey, in a couple sentences, what it’s about and why it’s so amazing. You really need to speak, or write, at some length. Lost Connections fascinates in part because its central topic is several specific, environmental causes of depression, as well as corresponding remedies.

Does “environmental causes” sound strange, in the context of depression? Or perhaps simply unfamiliar? To me, although it seemed reasonable enough that depression should have environmental causes, it was nonetheless quite unfamiliar. I had, for the most part, not encountered depression being talked about in that way. (We are, to be clear, talking about depressive disorders, and not simply depressive feelings.) I had encountered depression portrayed as caused either by somewhat mysterious “imbalances” or “deficiencies,” or by adverse past experiences. That first portrayal didn’t make a lot of sense to me, although that’s another topic. The second portrayal — depression as caused by past, adverse experiences — did make sense (and still does). But environmental causes? This sounded reasonable, but I had only a vague notion of it. I simply hadn’t encountered that topic in any kind of serious detail before.

Apparently, as I learned from Hari’s book, many environmental causes of depression are scientifically well established, and the research is not necessarily new. If this knowledge is in some sense secret, it is an “open secret,” perhaps suppressed in some sense, but certainly neglected in terms of what is most communicated to the general public. Even if this information weren’t so relatively unknown, it would still be a worthwhile and useful read. And not only as a casual read, but even as something to re-read, study, and take notes on. Why? For at least three reasons.

First, because Hari brings together clear explanations of eight common, environmental causes of depression. He describes each as a type of disconnection, viz.

Disconnection from:

1. meaningful work

2. other people

3. meaningful values

4. status and respect

5. the natural world

6. a hopeful or secure future

It’s very useful to have these gathered together in one source, each explained in some detail yet accessibly.

Second, Hari doesn’t stop with accounts of these causes, but proceeds to consider how each environmental cause of depression might be ameliorated or remedied. As is logical, each of these “non-pharmaceutical anti-depressants” is presented as a type of reconnection, corresponding at least roughly to a type of depression-causing disconnection.

Third, Lost Connections also takes up the matter of how effective, or how ineffective, anti-depressant drugs really are, at least for most people. This is actually the first part of the book, and it’s what most shocked me. I don’t want to say too much about it here, in part because that’s another topic, but perhaps in a future post I’ll be able to present a concise version of Hari’s account of this matter.

I want to note two very important things, so that I don’t give the wrong impression. First, although Hari focuses on environmental causes of depression, he does not deny or minimize the role of unhealed psychological trauma or other adverse past experiences. There are even two chapters given to trauma (and healing) specifically. It’s just that the main focus of Lost Connections is on environmental causes and environmental “treatments” for depression.

Second, and this is one of the unusual and excellent aspects of Lost Connections, Hari gives attention to the implication that if depression is caused by so many environmental factors, it is not an individual problem, nor an individual failing, nor can it be solved at an individualistic level. There are some things that some of us can do, to some extent, at an individual level which will improve our individual condition with respect to depression. The section on solutions does investigate, acknowledge, and present these, and so it is certainly useful to each of us at an individualistic level. Yet a lot of these environmental factors, these environmental causes of depression, are also societal patterns and conditions which most people cannot simply change for themselves on their own. In other words there is real attention paid to the way these depression-causing factors are societal conditions which require societal as well as individual solutions.

Here is the book’s website

And here is its Goodreads page

Thank you for taking the time to fully read this post. Have you read Lost Connections before, or implemented any of its natural “anti-depressants”? Do these correspond at all with any New Year’s resolutions you’ve made?

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18 thoughts on “Non-Pharmaceutical Anti-Depressants and Environmental Causes of Depression: Johann Hari’s Lost Connections

  1. I haven’t read Hari’s Lost Connections but, based on your overview, it aligns very closely with my own experience. I had small bouts of anxiety and depression in my early-20s (mild, untreated), but it permanently resolved when several of Hari’s connections were met: first “real” career post-graduation, healthy romantic relationship, building savings, evaluating/establishing my values, and an hour-long walk daily. On top of that, I would add an anti-inflammatory diet–eliminating gluten, dairy, and sugar was life-changing. I haven’t experienced any anxiety or depression in 12 years. I think we have more control than we realize when we’re under the thumb of overwhelming emotions. Sounds like a great book!

    1. Thank you very much for sharing, @esoterica, it’s interesting to hear how this matches up. I’m happy for you that it turned out to be controllable environmental causes in your case.

      I also think you’re right, that we have, at least potentially and in many cases, more control than the “intrinsic-disfunction” narrative leads us to believe. This is one of the powerful things about Hari’s book.

      At the same time (and this is not in contradiction), I think in a way too much responsibility or blame can be placed on each individual, as if we have full control over these environmental factors. In fact many people have very little control over these, so it needs to be considered societally as well. This is another very powerful thing about Hari’s book.

      1. You make a great point, and I agree–we often have more power than we realize over our environments, yet that power isn’t necessarily intrinsic. There are so many social, economic, and other barriers that can be really tricky to overcome. The books sounds very insightful–I’ll have to add it to my reading list.

  2. There are certainly more causes for depression than there were a few generations ago, also, it is better understood. in years past, people would start to drink themselves into a stupor to deal with depression. It was the “socially acceptable” way of dealing with feelings, especially when depression was seen as a sign of being “crazy”, so people didn’t want to get sent to asylums and given a lobotomy!

    1. That’s a good point that it is more possible to name depression as depression. Unfortunately, what it really is remains misunderstood by most people, which I one big reason I wanted to share something about Hari’s book.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. As a bipolar 2 patient I have much longer periods of depression that I often struggled with knowing their real cause. Environmental causes could indeed be a trigger for me. Could you please share some of the remedies he mentions, or are they specific to the various types you mentioned

    1. Hi Salwa, they are pretty much specific to the list of environmental causes listed. I’d like to someday try writing a post that discusses them. But, I would suggest checking out Hari’s book. The book’s website seems to have resources as well.

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