Johann Hari and the Causes of Depression and Anxiety

Ted Talk Link:

Image Source: Screen shot from youtube video linked above

British journalist Johann Hari has given a couple TED talks that dive deeper into the true roots of depression, anxiety, addiction. Today I want to talk about his Ted talk called “This could be why you’re depressed or anxious”. The 20 minute TED talk is linked above, if you can watch it before reading on.

But if you’re in a rush and a twenty minute video won’t work for you right now, let me summarize the video for you. Hari discusses several different causes of depression, and notes that the ones that the medical community focuses on are biological (whether by your genes or by a chemical / neurotransmitter imbalance in your brain). However Hari urges us to look beyond these too heavily blamed culprits and acknowledge that a lot of depression is caused by factors in one’s life like loneliness, lack of a connection to a community or to nature, and feeling like you don’t have control over a tough situation. Hari discusses how the Western world has adopted “junk values” such as the overemphasis of money, power, validation through social media. Most of us know deep inside that these things can’t bring us happiness, but even worse than that, focusing on these junk values can lead to depression and anxiety. Hari asks why we focus on them if it’s the case that we know they don’t bring happiness, to which he was told those who live in a Western world “live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life”. On a more hopeful note, he discusses a tribe in Cambodia that combats symptoms of depression through actually seeing someone’s pain for what it is, and then changing factors in that person’s life to move them away from pain, and into other more positive states such as self-sufficiency. He ends with a beautiful sentiment, shortened a little bit saying: “Your depression is not a malfunction, it’s a signal… we have to stop insulting these signals, by saying they are a sign of weakness or madness, or purely biological… we have to start listening to these signals… it’s only when we truly listen to these signals… that we’re going begin to see the liberating, nourishing deeper solutions.”. (What Hari doesn’t touch on is depression and anxiety are frequently linked, meaning it’s very common for someone who experiences one to experience the other. So while Hari mostly discusses depression, know that this talk definitely applies to anxiety as well.)

Well that was a little bit of a mouthful, but this information is so important. Now that the summary is over, take a couple deep breaths, because I’m about to ask you a lot of questions. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.

As Hari points out, it is possible that your depression and anxiety are due to those biological causes, but it is more likely to be the result of an environmental cause. To get to the root of exactly why YOU personally are experiencing depression and/or anxiety, we have to acknowledge what your mental health signals are telling you. If you truly sat down with yourself and listened to your depression and anxiety, what would they be saying? Are you lonely? Are you stuck in a situation you don’t know how to move past? Are you not fulfilled in your life? Do you have a need that isn’t being met? Do you feel hopeless, and why? A big, super important theme that Hari discusses is the lack of connection to others being so problematic. Maybe you aren’t around others a lot, or maybe you are around groups of people often but those interactions aren’t fulfilling. If you are anxious or depressed, do you feel you are missing out on having genuine connections with other people? If your social experiences are something like mostly getting drunk or high with your friends, or meeting up with people somewhere just to focus on your individual phones, do you feel like your true self can be left at home in those scenarios? While it makes sense that we can be lonely when we are alone, our society has made it so we can even feel lonely when we are in a crowd. If the idea of being lonely in a crowd resonates with you, are you choosing the crowds that encourage disconnection?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, what is the roadblock that is keeping yourself in a situation where you are saying yes? Aside from a truly pure biological cause of depression that should be discussed with a doctor or psychiatrist for support, it is important to take a deep dive and look at how our lives are impacting our mental health. Your job or school, the people around you, the economic or political environment of the place you live, your finances, your sense of unfulfillment or disconnection, a past with traumatic events, and many other factors are all related to your emotional and mental sense of wellbeing. Which of these things in your life need improvement?

Maybe seeing these questions has sparked an idea for change already, or maybe you need support figuring out what the answers to these questions mean for your healing journey. These questions can be tough and you don’t have to answer them alone. We would love to support you in finding the answers to these questions, and finding the solutions that come from figuring out the answers. In the mean time, be kind to yourself and thank your mental health signals for letting you know that you deserve something better!