Today I want to talk about one major cause of depression and the prospect of counteracting or removing that cause. This cause is disconnection from others, or loneliness (more on that shortly). I’m basing this largely on Johann Hari’s investigation and discussion of these matters in his amazing book Lost Connections, which I wrote about in a previous post, explaining what the book is about and why you might want to read it. In Lost Connections, Hari identifies nine causes of depression, six of which are social-environmental, and he also explores what he conceptualizes as non-pharmaceutical anti-depressants. These are things which are not drugs, but which do have real and significant anti-depressant effects.
Disconnection from Other People
One social-environmental cause of depression is disconnection from others, and perhaps more specifically, loneliness. We have to ask here, are loneliness and disconnection from others precisely the same? It isn’t entirely clear, nor is it entirely clear whether Hari equates the two. What we can say is that loneliness, as defined by Hari and the researchers he interviews, is certainly a form of disconnection from other people, and a major one at that.
What Is Loneliness?
Here’s the definition of loneliness being used. First, it isn’t the same as simply being alone. This should be fairly obvious, for otherwise, it would be impossible to feel lonely among a crowd of people. Or, conversely, to feel deeply connected with others even with no one else around. Thus loneliness isn’t the same as being alone.
Next, it turns out that not feeling lonely has at least two parts, according to loneliness researcher John Cacioppo. One is “to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you.” The other is to feel a sense of “mutual aid and protection.” (See Chapter 7: “Cause Two: Disconnection from Other People,” in Lost Connections.)
Loneliness would thus be something like this: not having other human beings in your life with whom you both (1) feel that you share things that are meaningful to both or all of you (presumably values, goals, interests, etc.), and with whom you also (2) feel a sense of mutual aid and protection.
To me, that seems fairly clear, and a fairly good definition of loneliness. As I mentioned earlier, loneliness, thus understood, is a disconnection from others which can be a significant cause of depression. Besides the obviousness of this (I mean really, how could loneliness not contribute toward depression?), there appears to be a good deal of scientific evidence. I don’t want to go into too much detail in this post, but in Lost Connections Hari does a wonderful job of explaining some of the studies and experiments, and he also points you toward plenty of the actual research and researchers.
Loneliness Causes Depression
But let’s talk about it a little. One finding is that already depressed people, when made to feel more lonely than they already may feel, feel even more depressed. And that already depressed people, when made to feel less lonely, feel less depressed. A different study followed a large number of people who were not depressed to begin with, for five years. Those people who happened to become depressed during this period usually became lonely first. Another way to say this, is that becoming lonely made it statistically many times more likely that a person would then become depressed (or “develop depressive symptoms”).
The basic moral is twofold. First, that loneliness, or disconnection from others, is a significant causal factor in depression. Second, that becoming better connected with others is therefore a legitimate and effective anti-depressant, even if it is not a drug.
There is some interesting indirect evidence from a cross-cultural study, and one specific re-connection practice or strategy, that I will write about in a follow-up post.
Has anyone observed this link between loneliness and depression?
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