Sometimes it feels like the world is actively conspiring against your happiness. Now before you start folding your tin foil hat, let me say that you might not be paranoid …
Right now there are a record number of people on antidepressants. So many that even if you’re not taking antidepressants, well … you still kinda are.
Enough people in Western nations consume — and then excrete — the medications that they’re at detectable levels in the water supply.
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Some one in five U.S. adults is taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem; nearly one in four middle-aged women in the United States is taking antidepressants at any given time … 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.
For the past few decades, we’ve lived under the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your noggin. And while that is true for some people, more and more research is showing that our dissatisfaction may be due less to a broken brain and more to a broken life.
You don’t see so rapid a surge in cases of depression because our genetics or grey matter changed overnight. The world has shifted in ways that are detrimental to the psychological needs of the human animal. That persistent feeling of vague dissatisfaction may be a normal response to abnormal circumstances. The canary in the coal mine.
So journalist Johann Hari spent three years on a journey of over forty thousand miles conducting more than 200 interviews with social scientists and psychologists to discover what was wrong with the way we live today that was causing such an explosion of unhappiness.
His excellent book is Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
What he found was that while our world has become very technologically connected, all the sources of unhappiness stem from a growing disconnection in other areas of our lives.
Let’s find out how to reconnect. And how to live happier lives …
Disconnection from other people
Loneliness is the equivalent of being punched in the face. I mean, literally.
Your stress response to both — the increase in your body’s cortisol level — is the same.
Feeling lonely, it turned out, caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar — as much as some of the most disturbing things that can ever happen to you. Becoming acutely lonely, the experiment found, was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack. It’s worth repeating. Being deeply lonely seemed to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.
And have no illusions, loneliness is an epidemic in the modern world. A few decades ago, the average US citizen reported having three close friends. Since 2004 the most common answer is …
… social scientists have been asking a cross-section of U.S. citizens a simple question for years: “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. When they started doing the study several decades ago, the average number of close friends an American had was three. By 2004, the most common answer was none.
I can already hear some people crowing: “I might be dissatisfied but how could it be due to loneliness? I’m always around people.”
Turns out there’s a difference between being lonely and feeling lonely. This is why someone who works a job surrounded by people and then goes home to a spouse and children, can spend very little time alone — and yet still feel profoundly lonely.
In his studies, it turned out that feeling lonely was different from simply being alone. Surprisingly, the sensation of loneliness didn’t have much to do with how many people you spoke to every day, or every week. Some of the people in his study who felt most lonely actually talked to lots of people every day. “There’s a relatively low correlation between the objective connections and perceived connections,” he says.
So what do we need to do? To prevent feeling lonely, we must share something with those around us — something meaningful to both you and them. A belief. A cause. An activity. A goal. We need to be “in it together” — not merely together in the middle of a faceless crowd.
As he researched this, John discovered that there was a missing ingredient to loneliness, and to recovering from it. 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. You have to be in it together — and “it” can be anything that you both think has meaning and value.
So join a group. Harvard researcher Robert Putnam has studied group activities for decades — everything from bowling leagues to volunteer groups.
Between 1985 and 1994 involvement in community organizations declined by 45%.
Today, people still bowl, but they do it alone. They’re in their own lane, doing their own thing. The collective structure has collapsed. Think about everything else we do to come together — like supporting your kid’s school, say. “In the ten short years between 1985 and 1994” alone, he wrote, “active involvement in community organizations … fell by 45 percent.”
Famed biologist E.O. Wilson once said, “People must belong to a tribe.” Increasingly, we don’t. But you can fix that.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
We all know relationships are critical. But there’s something else the modern world is lacking that’s a lot less obvious but no less important …
Disconnection from values
You pursue “intrinsic values” when you do something solely because you love it. You pursue “extrinsic values” when you chase money or status. Being a patriotic soldier is intrinsic; being a mercenary is extrinsic.
The lesson from the research is clear: the more extrinsically motivated you are, the more you feel motivated by money or status, the more depressed and anxious you are.
Twenty-two different studies have, in the years since, found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be. Twelve different studies found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more anxious you will be. Similar studies, inspired by Tim’s work and using similar techniques, have now been carried out in Britain, Denmark, Germany, India, South Korea, Russia, Romania, Australia, and Canada — and the results, all over the world, keep coming back the same.
I know some people are jumping to say, “Well, I’m not like that!” But, to a degree, we have all become more extrinsically motivated. We all care, to some degree, what others think of us and technology often amplifies this to toxic levels. Facebook and Instagram have become gladiatorial status tournaments to show off how cool our lives are.
But when we’re counting “likes” on social media, we let others control our self-esteem. And that places your own happiness outside your control. Not good.
And even if you win, you lose. Studies show that the achievement of extrinsic goals — the fancy car and the impressive promotion — bring no lasting happiness. None. Meanwhile, when we pursue intrinsic goals like being a better parent or trying to improve our writing skills so our blog posts don’t suck, we feel much happier and less anxious.
People who achieved their extrinsic goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness — none. They spent a huge amount of energy chasing these goals, but when they fulfilled them, they felt the same as they had at the start. … 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.
You experience “flow” when you’re so involved in something that you lose track of time. You know the old saying: “time flies when you’re having fun.” Flow is a huge contributor to happiness.
And the more focused we are on extrinsic goals like status, the fewer flow states we experience.
But when Tim studied highly materialistic people, he discovered they experience significantly fewer flow states than the rest of us. Why would that be? He seems to have found an explanation. Imagine if, when Tim was playing the piano every day, he kept thinking: Am I the best piano player in Illinois? Are people going to applaud this performance? Am I going to get paid for this? How much?
So what should we do? Yeah, we all have to pay the bills and achieving a decent level of status is a good thing, but we need to start choosing more activities that serve those intrinsic values.
Spending more time with those we love rather than those who can help us get ahead. More time playing the guitar because it’s fun rather than sharpening our Excel skills to get that promotion.
“The first thing is for people to ask themselves — Am I setting up my life so I can have a chance of succeeding at my intrinsic values? Am I hanging out with the right people, who are going to make me feel loved, as opposed to making me feel like I made it?”
Spend a little more time with people that make you smile and doing the things that make you smile — simply because they make you smile.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So you’re connecting with people and connecting with your intrinsic values. Great. What’s another connection we’re getting less and less of that the human animal needs?
Just like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location …
Disconnection from nature
All other things being equal, move closer to nature and you’ll be happier. Move away from nature and you’ll be more depressed.
… the people who moved to green areas saw a big reduction in depression, and the people who moved away from green areas saw a big increase in depression.
Some might say that’s because rural areas have less crime or less pollution or … Wrong.
If you live in the part of a big city with lots of trees, you get happier. Cart yourself over to the section of the city that’s nothing but concrete and you get sadder.
They compared deprived inner-city areas that had some green space to very similar deprived inner-city areas without green space. Everything else — like levels of social connections — was the same. But it turned out there was less stress and despair in the greener neighborhood.
We use our big human brains so much that we think we’re machines and forget we’re animals. But we are animals.
Leave the Panda in the forest with his bamboo and he’s happy. Move him to a zoo and he mopes around, feels stressed out and loses all interest in making little Pandas. Humans aren’t all that different.
“We have been animals that move for a lot longer than we have been animals that talk and convey concepts,” she said to me. “But we still think that depression can be cured by this conceptual layer. I think [the first answer is more] simple. Let’s fix the physiology first. Get out. Move.”
So what do we do? We simply weren’t meant to spend all our time going from cubicle to couch. Feeling happier can be as simple as spending more time in nature.
The research all says that exercise makes us happier. Guess what? When you exercise outdoors the effect is even stronger.
When scientists have compared people who run on treadmills in the gym with people who run in nature, they found that both see a reduction in depression — but it’s higher for the people who run in nature.
(To learn the best way to motivate yourself to exercise, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot. We’re going “psychologically Paleo” and getting more of what our ancient physiology needs from the very modern world.
Time to round it all up — and find out why so many of our efforts to be happier often fail …
Here’s how to be happy in today’s crazy world:
- Connect With People: Just being around others isn’t enough. Join groups that you share something with. You need to be “in it together” to hit back when loneliness punches you in the face.
- Connect With Your Intrinsic Values: More “flow” and fewer selfies. More doing what you love because you love it. Chasing status doesn’t lead to lasting happiness; it puts happiness outside your control.
- Connect with Nature: Go outside for a reason other than to pick up that box from Amazon.
So what happens when you make a consistent, concerted effort to be happier?
You fail miserably. No joke. Deliberate efforts to be happier do not work … in the US and UK, that is.
They tracked thousands of people, some of whom had decided to deliberately pursue happiness and some of whom hadn’t. When they compared the results, they found something they had not expected. If you deliberately try to become happy, you will not become happier—if you live in the United States. But if you live in Russia, Japan, or Taiwan, you will become happier.
What’s going on? It’s not that happiness is unachievable or that hard work isn’t rewarded. The issue here is that the US and UK have the most individualistic cultures. And so the efforts people in those countries make are usually individualistic …
But happiness comes from our connections to other people.
And so when we work toward just making ourselves happy as individuals we often fail. But when we work towards the happiness of a group, we usually succeed.
“The more you think happiness is a social thing, the better off you are,” Brett explained to me, summarizing her findings and reams of other social science.
The modern world promotes a culture of “be yourself.” But if you want to be happy, that isn’t always the best idea.
To find more joy, spend a little less time being you and little more time being us.