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Interview: Johann Hari on Mental Health During a Pandemic

There has been a huge transfer of wealth to the rich and gradual collapse of the middle class. That’s made a lot of people anxious.

On May 31, 2020, Merion West‘s Kevin Turner was joined by journalist and author Johann Hari, who is most famous for his work on topics including depression, addiction, and loneliness.

Mr. Hari’s most recent book, Lost Connections, is available on Audible.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I remember that when Lost Connections came out, people were thinking about how the book goes about depression, but you touched on lots of issues related to isolation in the book as well. Now that we are living in the current world of COVID-19, how do you see the message of your work resonating in our daily lives? 

Yeah, it’s been a really interesting experience because so many people have been talking about it on social media and recommending it to their friends. It’s come back up the bestseller list two years after it came out. And I think this whole terrible experience of the pandemic is–in one way—an opportunity for us to understand depression and anxiety more deeply. Depression or anxiety have dramatically spiked under this pandemic, and a big part of what I’m exploring in the book—what I learned in my three years of research for the book—is that depression and anxiety have actually been increasing all throughout my lifetime. I’m 41 years old, and this is happening in the United States, in Britain, and across the Western world. 

One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I wanted to understand why. Why are depression and anxiety increasing so much? Why is it with each year that passes, more and more of us are finding it harder to get through the day? I actually learned that there’s really good scientific evidence for why depression and anxiety are increasing. And I think that lots of those factors have acutely spiked in the last two months. One of the reasons why I wanted to learn about why depression and anxiety have increased so much was a kind of personal reason, which is that when I was a teenager, I remember going to my doctor and explaining that I had this feeling like pain was leaking out of me.

I couldn’t understand it; I couldn’t control it, but I was ashamed of it. My doctor told me a story that a lot of people across the Western world had been told the last 30 years that I now realize was totally wrong. Certainly, my doctor was a well-intentioned person, but it was really oversimplified. My doctor said we know why people get like this. Some people just have something wrong with their brains, like a chemical imbalance in their brains. You’re clearly one of them. All we need to do is give you some drugs, and you’ll be fine. So I started taking an antidepressant called Paxil, and I felt significantly better for a while. But then the feelings of pain came back. So I went back to my doctor and was given a higher dose. Again, I felt better, and again, the feeling of pain came back. I was in this cycle of being given higher and higher doses until after 13 years I was taking the maximum possible dose that you were legally allowed to take.

And even so, I was still really quite depressed. I learned from the scientific evidence that my experience, which I thought was anomalous, was, in fact, the norm. Most people turn to chemical antidepressants, get some benefit, but they become depressed again. For so long, we’ve been told an exclusively or predominantly biological story about this, that it’s just due to a problem in our brains. 

Right at the start of doing the research for the book, I felt that that couldn’t be the whole story, because if that was the whole story, why would depression and anxiety be increasing so much? Human biology has not suddenly mutated in the last 30 years. There must be something more to that story. And I think the “something more,” the other factors that are left out of that story, have been increasing throughout my lifetime, and have now very sharply increased. So, I learned from the leading experts in the world that there is, in fact, scientific evidence for nine different causes of depression and anxiety. Two of them are indeed in our biology, and I hope we get a chance to talk about them. But most of them are not factors in our biology. They are factors in the way we live, and once you understand them, you can see why they have gone up. 

So let’s look at an obvious one: loneliness. There’s a study that asked Americans how many close friends they have and could turn to in a crisis. When they started doing it years ago, the most common answer was five. Today, the most common answer is none. It’s not the average, but it’s the most common answer. There are more Americans who have nobody to turn to than any other option.

We are the loneliest society in human history. I spent a lot of time with the leading expert in the world on loneliness, Professor John Cacioppo, who sadly recently died. Professor Cacioppo proved several really important things. Firstly, he proved that depression and anxiety cause loneliness. And secondly, he showed that depression or anxiety significantly increased. This helps us to understand more about loneliness, and, obviously, there has been a big increase in loneliness when we’re in lockdown at home and that’s a key factor in depression and anxiety. Let’s look at another one: financial insecurity. There’s very strong evidence that financial insecurity causes depression and anxiety.

People who have an independent income from property are ten times less likely to develop serious anxiety. This doesn’t mean rich people and people who have no income from property rights can’t become anxious. Of course, they can. But this factor is a significant aspect of protecting people from anxiety. Again, in some ways, that seems like a very banal insight. I suspect if you’d ask my grandmother if being worried about money makes you more or less anxious, my grandmother would have slapped me around the ear and asked why I was wasting her time. It’s such a stupid and obvious question. But again, what you see is that this biological story has some truth in it, but it has come to dominate the way we think about depression that it’s crowded out more common-sense understandings of what’s going wrong. Financial insecurity has been increasing throughout our lifetime, really since the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States.

There has been a huge transfer of wealth to the rich and gradual collapse of the middle class. That’s made a lot of people anxious. And, of course, under the Coronavirus crisis, there’s been an explosion—with the biggest increase in unemployment since the Great Depression, perhaps even in the history of the United States. Again, that’s obviously causing a lot of depression and anxiety. One of the things that I think can really help us at this point with coping with depression and anxiety during the Coronavirus crisis (and for when we rebuild afterward) is to actually understand depression and anxiety and in a much broader way. That will lead us to much more effective and meaningful solutions as we come out of this crisis. 

I talked with people who have read your book before, including some who discovered your book recently, I mean, in the last two months or so because of this crisis. Why do you think the message you had in the new book resonates better with people now that they are in some kind of forced isolation and have to maintain some kind of social distancing, which we know is for our own survival?  I think everyone is getting aspects of isolation and loneliness, so how do you think your book resonates these days?  

Well, people have been telling me there have been lots of different ways, but I’ll tell you one thing that people are telling me that is resonating. So, a key part of the book—and what I learned in the journey of writing the book—is that I began to think that what we need to do is radically expand our idea of what an antidepressant is.

Anything that reduces depression and anxiety should be regarded as an antidepressant. To some people that will include drugs. They should absolutely remain on the menu. But precisely because these problems go so much deeper than our biology, the solutions need to go much deeper too. And there was a moment that really crystallized for me. I went to interview a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfield, who happened to be in Cambodia in 2001—when they first introduced chemical antidepressants to people in that country. The local doctors, the Cambodians, had never heard of these drugs, so Dr. Summerfield explained. And they said to him, “We don’t need antidepressants. We already have them.” And he said, “What do you mean?” He thought they were going to talk about some kind of herbal remedies, like St. John’s Wort or something. Instead, they told him a story. There was a farmer in that community who worked in the rice fields. One day, he stood on a landmine left over from the war with the United States, and he got his leg blown off.

So, they gave him an artificial limb, and he went back to work in the rice fields. Apparently, it’s super painful to work in the water when you have an artificial limb, and I’m guessing it was traumatic for this guy to be working in the field where he got blown up. The guy started to cry all day. After a while, he refused to get out of bed, and he developed what we would call classic depression. The Cambodian doctor said to Dr. Summerfield that this is when they gave him an antidepressant. He said, “What is it?” They sat with him and explained. They listened to him. They realized that his pain made sense. In fact, when you talked to him, it made perfect sense. It wasn’t hard to understand. One of the doctors figured if they brought this guy a cow, he could become a dairy farmer. He wouldn’t be in this position that was screwing him up so much. So they gave him a cow, and within a couple of weeks, his crying stopped. Within a month, his depression was gone.

They told Dr. Summerfield that that cow was an antidepressant. If you’ve been raised to think about depression the way we have, that sounds like a joke. But what those Cambodian doctors knew intuitively based on this individual unscientific anecdote is what the leading medical body in the whole world, the World Health Organization, has been trying to tell us for years. If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, you’re not weak. You’re not crazy. You’re not in a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs. What you need is love and practical support to get those deeper needs met. Now, what we need to be asking—and what a big part of what I’m asking—is what’s the cow for the things that are screwing us up? We think about this moment in particular, and there are many things going on, but let’s climb into one. Let’s look at the financial insecurity. There has been an explosion in financial insecurity in this crisis. The $1,200 stimulus check doesn’t begin to scratch the surface for what ordinary Americans need. It’s worth saying that the U.S. is somewhat of an outlier in providing so little direct support to its citizens. Let’s think about El Salvador, one of the poorest countries in the Americas. The government of El Salvador has canceled people’s rent and canceled people’s utility bills for the duration of this crisis.

I’m in Britain, and Britain has a conservative government that I’m very critical of in all sorts of ways, yet they are paying 80% of people’s wages all throughout this crisis. The U.S. is in a very unusual position in leaving its citizens so unprotected against this catastrophe that they did nothing to cause. So, I would argue there is an antidepressant for that financial insecurity, and it’s been tried before. One of the stories I tell in the book is in the early 1970’s, the Canadian government did an experiment. They chose a town at random—it’s called Dauphin in Manitoba about four hours from Winnipeg—and they said to a large number of people in this town that they were going to give them a universal basic income. It was the equivalent of about $11,000 in today’s U.S. dollars, so it’s not a huge amount of money.

They said to everyone in this town that they would give them $11,000 a year. There was nothing that they needed to do in return for it, and there’s nothing the government could do to take it away unless you go to prison. They wanted to see what would happen, so this experiment went on for a few years, and lots of interesting things happened. Revealingly, nobody gave up work. Everyone carried on working. But people had a greater baseline of financial security, and this was studied by a wonderful social scientist called Dr. Evelin Forget. Many things happened, but to me, the most important to the purpose of what we’re saying is there was a massive fall in all mental illnesses. In fact, mental illnesses that were so severe that people had to be shut away at mental hospitals fell by nine percent. That’s an extraordinary fall. You won’t find a drug that has a fall that big.

In some ways, it’s kind of obvious; financial insecurity makes people feel terrible. Giving them a baseline of financial security massively reduces the emotional and mental health problems right now. This is, by the way, now being tried in Finland and in some parts of Scotland. These results are being replicated. Again, one of the ways we should find our way through this crisis, which the citizenry did not cause, is to give people a baseline of financial stability and security. That is an antidepressant. The decline of the American middle class has been going on for a long time. Lots of people have been made financially insecure, and lots of people have gone to their doctor with depression caused in part by financial insecurity and are being told that there’s a problem with their brain right now. There are real biological contributions. There are things that go wrong in the brain when you become depressed. But, as the leading doctor at the United Nations has said in a UN’s official statement in 2017, we need to talk less about chemical imbalances—and more about power imbalances. We need to talk more about the imbalances in the way we live. Responding to primarily social problems with primarily biological tools isn’t going to work very well and hasn’t worked very well, which is one of the reasons why we have such an epidemic of depression and anxiety.

In Lost Connections, you talk about being lost in loneliness and what troubles us when not having a purpose in life. With the riots that are going on in several cities and states in the United States, do you think that makes all of this more magnified?

In terms of the resistance and uprisings that are happening across the country by African Americans, I think it’s much more of a common sense thing, which is, if you’re an African American, you can be murdered with impunity by the police at any moment. That’s an obvious cause of depression or anxiety. That’s an entirely legitimate cause of depression and anxiety. What could be more anxiety-provoking than knowing you could be murdered for nothing? The solution to that is to stop the police from brutally murdering African Americans, you know. And again, we look at the figures and African Americans have significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than some other groups.

Again, for perfectly understandable reasons, and I think this is one of the key shifts in my thinking that happened in the research that I did for the book. I realized that for most of my life I had thought about my depression as a biological malfunction. And what I learned is, in fact, while there are some biological contributions to depression, anxiety, they are signals. They’re telling us that something’s gone wrong. But what we’ve done as a society and as a culture is we’ve insulted these signals. We’ve said that they’re a sign of weakness, a sign of craziness, or purely biological. 

I think there’s an interesting parallel where if you think about the 1970’s, there’s a huge increase in the prescription of valium to women. It was disproportionately given to women who were surviving domestic violence. Now, when we look at the 1970’s, what we see is those women didn’t need valium. They needed feminism and a movement. That meant they needed women’s shelters. They needed laws that protected women against domestic violence. They needed a change in the culture and policing of domestic violence. They needed to get away from the men who were beating them—and for those men to be punished.

You can see how that’s a very clear example, and there are many throughout the history of psychiatry, where we have treated the symptoms of a social problem by suppressing those symptoms, when, in fact, what we should be doing is dealing with the underlying problem. And that’s not just my position. That’s the position of the World Health Organization who has said that the biomedical model is depriving people of their rights. We need to see these problems as primarily, not entirely, social issues, and they need social solutions. I think you’ve seen that with African Americans. But I would say, in terms of that, there’s another layer of what’s going on, and this is not restricted to African Americans by any means. This applies across the entire population. One thing that people have been talking to me about a lot in the book is a chapter that’s about another one of the causes of depression and side issues of depression. Everyone knows that junk food has taken over all diets and made us physically sick. I don’t say that with any sense of superiority; KFC just started delivering again in London a few days ago, and I cried with happiness.

There is equally strong evidence that a kind of junk values has taken over our minds and made us mentally sick. So for thousands of years, philosophers have said that if you think life is about money, status, and shoving off, you are going to feel like crap, right? It’s not an exact quote from Schopenhauer, but that is basically what he said. Weirdly, nobody had scientifically investigated this until an extraordinary man, whom I interviewed a lot for the book, Professor Tim Kasser, who’s just retired from Knox College in Illinois. Professor Kasser discovered many important things in his career. For the purpose of this conversation, there are two really crucial findings. One is that Professor Kasser showed that the more you think life is about money, status, and showing off, the more likely you are to become depressed and anxious beyond having a baseline of financial security.

Secondly, he’s shown that as a society, we have become much more driven in buying these junk values, which are analogies to junk food. We’ve been trained as a culture to look for happiness in all the wrong places. We think that happiness and meaning come from buying crap you don’t need and displaying it on social media to make other people jealous. We’re immersed in these values from the moment we are born. More 18-month-old children in the United States know what the McDonald’s “M” means than know their last names. So we’re trained from the moment we’re born by this machinery of advertising, Instagram, and everything else to think that happiness comes from consumption.

I definitely was immersed in that culture. If you’d asked me when I was 10 years old what happiness meant, I would have thought it meant going to a shopping center and buying anything you wanted. There’s an interesting tension here because at some level we know that’s not true. It’s a cliché to say to people that you’re not going to lie on your deathbed and think about all the shoes you bought and relax. But as Professor Kasser put it to me, we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life. I think one of the good things to come out of this terrible situation is that it’s given us an opportunity to recalibrate our values. There are lots of good things about our culture, but something has gone terribly wrong with the values of this culture. Donald Trump is a dystopian expression of that. So, there’s a big debate in the academic literature about why being driven by junk values makes you feel so bad. I think there are several things going on, but I think it relates to a quite basic concept that goes back to the 1950’s and psychology.

Everyone knows they have natural physical needs. Obviously you need food, water, shelter, and clean air. If I take those things away from you, you’d be in real trouble real fast. But there’s equally strong evidence that all human beings have natural psychological needs. You need to feel you belong. You need to believe your life has meaning and purpose. You need to feel that people see you and value you. You need to be sure you have a future that makes sense. And this culture we built was good at lots of things, but we’ve been getting less and less good at meeting these deep underlying psychological needs for people. It’s one of the key drivers of this. Just like everyone needs nutrition, junk food appeals to the part of us that needs nutrition, but it actually poisons us. Everyone needs a system of values to guide them through life. But what we’ve ended up with is a system of values that doesn’t meet our underlying needs. That, in fact, takes us away from all underlying psychological needs a lot of the time. In some ways, Donald Trump is a dystopian expression of these junk values. This is a man who is undeniably wealthy, even though he’s lied about the scale of his wealth. He is the most powerful man in the world.

He lives in an actual golden tower when he’s not in the White House. He’s married to a woman who meets all the conventional beauty standards. He’s won the game, and I’ve never seen someone more unhappy. He’s achingly unhappy because it tells you something about the nature of the game that even if you win it, you don’t feel good. It tells us that that’s not where we’ll find happiness. Another reason why you’re more likely to be depressed and anxious if you live your life by these junk values, as Professor Kasser has shown, is that if you live your life guided by these values, your relationships are worse. You have less trust; your relationships are shorter, and I think you see this in the relationship between Donald and Melania Trump.

I don’t see this as a cheap shot about them all. Years ago, long before his political career, Melania Trump went to speak at NYU, and a student asked her if she would have married Donald Trump if he wasn’t rich? She replied, “Do you think he would have married me if I wasn’t beautiful?” Think about what that reveals about the nature of their relationship. How layers of instability are built into that relationship because they value each other not according to their intrinsic worth, but according to, in her case, beauty, and in his case, wealth. You can see what that means, right? She knows if she gets fat and loses her conventional beauty, she’s out. And he knows if he loses his wealth and power, it’s over.

Compare that to Barack and Michelle Obama, who I’m sure would say they’d love each other no matter what. In fact, Donald Trump was asked by Howard Stern in an interview, “If Melania was burned in a fire, would you still love her?” And he said, “Depends. Do her tits get burned?” So you can see I mean. That’s a very extreme—almost a caricature—example of junk values and a life lived according to junk values. You can see how that’s a way of living and looking at the people around you that will make you much less happy, and in fact, more depressed and anxious, as Donald Trump clearly is.

One of the things I think that this crisis can give us is an opportunity to reevaluate. Who were the people who were classified as key workers in this crisis? They were not the billionaires. They were not the Instagram influencers. They were not the Wall Street bankers. Turns out we don’t need those people in a crisis. Who do we need? People who have been devalued by this culture for years. Shelf-stackers, doctors, nurses, street cleaners, garbage collectors, doctors, people who we’ve really undervalued in this culture for a really long time. Actually, by the way, those are jobs that my family did. My grandmother was a cleaner. My dad was a bus driver. Turns out their essential work is much more than the people who have sneered at them for a long time. I think this is an opportunity, and there’s no guarantee you will do this, but this crisis is an opportunity for us to see that we were valuing the wrong things. When our backs are against the wall, the people we need are the people who are underpaid and devalued, and we don’t have to carry on doing that.

We can live in different ways, and we can treat people differently. More importantly, we can reclaim wealth from the people who contribute very little to society and redistribute it to people who contribute so much. 

This epidemic changed us in many ways. And I think the effects and outcomes are going to stay with us for a very long time. Health-wise—and based on the research that you have done for your book—where do you see us going after this COVID-19 era? Would we be more willing to understand the value of connection, social interaction, having “real values,” and having a purpose in life? Are we in the state to reconsider the junk values that have been imposed on us? 

That entirely depends on what we do now. There are many directions that this could go in. We could end up in a dystopian economic collapse, where we turn on each other like dogs in a cage. That’s one plausible scenario where we retreat into tribal hostilities, where financial instability gets even worse and we mediate even more of our lives through screens: another way of living that doesn’t meet our needs. And we hide from each other in fear. That’s one possible scenario. Or we can learn the lessons from this. There are all sorts of practical things we can do. The last third of Lost Connections is really about how we change the society and culture—as well as our individual lives—so that we can reverse that trend and have less depression and anxiety and more people having meaningful lives

So, think about the increase in loneliness. Before COVID-19 here, 40 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “nobody knows me well.” It’s a staggering figure. For those people psychologically—and that’s not a small portion of the population—they were already in quarantine before this began. And one of the heroes of my book is a man named Dr. Sam Everington. He’s a doctor in a poor part of East London, where I lived for many years. Sam was really uncomfortable because he had loads of patients coming to him with terrible depression and anxiety, and—like me—he’s not opposed to chemical antidepressants. He thinks they have some value. But he could see two things.

Firstly, his patients were depressed and anxious for perfectly understandable reasons. Secondly, although drugs gave some of them some relief, they often weren’t solving the problem. So, one day he decided to pioneer a different approach. A woman came to see him named Lisa Cunningham, who had been terribly depressed and anxious for seven years, and Sam said to Lisa, “Don’t worry, I’ll carry on giving you these drugs. I’m also going to prescribe something else. I’d like you to come to the doctor’s office twice a week to meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people, not to talk about how bad you feel—you can do that if you want—but the purpose of the group is to find something meaningful that you can all do together. The first time the group met, Lisa started vomiting with anxiety because it was so much for her. The group started talking about what to do.

This inner-city East London, and people—like me—didn’t know anything about gardening but decided maybe they could learn gardening. There was an area behind the doctor’s offices that was just scrubland. So they started watching clips on YouTube. They started taking books out of the library. They started to get their fingers in the soil. They started to plant seeds. They started to learn the rhythms of the seasons. There’s a lot of evidence that exposure to the natural world is really powerful and anti-depressing.

But they started to do something even more important. They started to form a tribe. They started to form a group. They started to care about each other. You know, when one man didn’t show up, the others would go looking for them to see if he was okay. The way Lisa put it to me, “As the garden began to bloom, we began to bloom.” There was a study in Norway of a very similar program that found it was more than twice as effective as chemical antidepressants for what I think is an obvious reason. It was dealing with some of the reasons why these people were depressed and anxious in the first place. And this is something I saw all over the world, from Sydney to San Francisco to São Paulo. The most effective strategies for dealing with depression and anxiety are the ones that deal with the reasons why it gets so bad in the first place. So let’s think about how we’ve all been made to feel lonelier.

Some of the things we could take from that is a much greater understanding that loneliness causes depression to be much worse, a greater understanding that so many people around us have been feeling like this for so long, and, most importantly, that we need to build in-place structures to reduce that loneliness. Every single doctor’s office in the United States should have a social prescribing ring. This approach is called social prescribing. You don’t just prescribe the person drugs. You prescribe them to be part of a group. Every single doctor’s office should have a social prescribing ring. Every single doctor’s office should have the option, along with the option of drugs, to receive what Lisa and the people in that group had. And that’s just one of the many ways in which a deeper understanding of depression—and what causes deep depression or anxiety—can help us to find more meaningful solutions, as opposed to all of those years that I was told my depression was purely biological.

Well, that wasn’t the intention of anyone, but it cut me off from finding more meaningful solutions to my depression because I thought, well, if it’s just a problem with my brain, what can I do about my brain except drug myself? Once you understand that these causes go much deeper than our biology, we can begin to look for solutions that go much deeper than our biology too, and that can be profoundly liberating. And that’s not just my position. That’s the position of the leading doctor at the United Nations. That’s the position of the World Health Organization, the leading medical body in the world. People we’ve been turning to for guidance on Coronavirus, although President Trump is now pulling the United States out of that. But it has to come from an understanding that depression is not a malfunction.

Depression is a signal, and we need to stop insulting that signal and start listening to it because it’s telling us things we really need to hear.  

Do you think that given the isolation COVID-19 has brought to the world, people are more understanding of people who were in isolation or depressed before. Are we now more open to understanding these people better?

I think we have to draw that connection for people. Also, Professor Cacioppo, again, the leading expert in the world on loneliness before he died told me such an interesting thing. So he had obviously studied the science of loneliness and actually pioneered the science of loneliness. He said this thing that really stayed with me, and he told me that in order to study something, you have to define it. And it seems very easy to define loneliness.

If you ask anyone if they feel lonely, they will know what it means. But it turned out to actually be quite difficult to get a working definition because instinctively we feel like the sensation of being lonely is caused by being alone. You would think you can just measure it. A good proxy for measuring loneliness would be the number of people you spoke to in a day, but it turned out they didn’t correlate very well. How lonely you feel doesn’t map that closely to how many people you spoke to that day or that week. What he discovered is loneliness is not about how many people you speak to.

Loneliness is about feeling that you share something meaningful with other people. When he explained it to me, it made sense quite quickly because he said to me, look, the first time you go to New York and you go to Times Square, you’re surrounded by other people, but you’ll probably feel quite lonely because you don’t know these people and you don’t share anything with them. You don’t care about them. Most of us have had the experience of being in a relationship when it starts to break down. The other person is still there, but you feel quite lonely because the meaning has broken down between you. Loneliness is not about the number of people you interact with. Loneliness is the amount of meaning you share with the people around you. I think that’s important going forward. It helps explain how people who work in busy offices can be very lonely. But it also helps us to think about how we deal with our loneliness in this period of lockdown—and in this period when we have very sound medical reasons to remain socially distant for quite a long time.

We can still build meaning with each other even as we are physically distant. There are all sorts of ways we can do that: through music, through art, and I would say also through political courses. One thing I think we should be fighting for is a big increase in the minimum wage to thank the people who have kept us alive all through this crisis by stocking shelves and cleaning our streets. Society would have collapsed without them and always will collapse without them. I think we have to discuss these things, and we need to shift our perspective on loneliness as we survive this crisis—and as we move forward. In that sense, although nothing will mitigate the tragedy of this crisis, this is a terrible situation in which very large numbers of people are losing their lives and many more will because the governments of Britain, the United States, and many other places are so disastrously mishandling it, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take some good things from it as well in the same way that the utter catastrophe of the AIDS crisis led to many positive changes.

I don’t think gay marriage would have happened as of now if AIDS hadn’t happened when it did, and the humanization of gay people emerged as a result of it. It doesn’t take away the terrible tragedy of all the people who were lost, but we can learn a lot from the tragedies that are happening and gain a lot of insight. Those insights can help us to build a better society when we come out of this. We needed to already, and this is just a very acute lesson in why we needed to. 

When you were writing Lost Connections, you were just discovering the loneliness, depression, and drug dependency around it. But the world was still in many ways functioning normally. If you were writing the book during the COVID-19 times right now (when isolation and social distancing are in place), what would you do differently in your book, or what are the parts that you would have highlighted more? 

In a funny way, what I realized was that actually the normal we were living with was deeply unhealthy. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, said it’s no sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society. The normal that we had was making huge numbers of us depressed, anxious, addicted, vulnerable to addiction, and suicidal in some cases. So, interestingly, I didn’t think that normal was sustainable before this pandemic.

Not least because we were in a culture that was literally destroying and destabilizing the planet’s climate. A species that destroys its own habitat is going to be in trouble. So I think—in a sense—that we have this longing to go back to normal, and, of course, there are lots of things we want to go back to extensively. But, actually, we can’t go back because if we go back to normal, we’ll go back to the problems of what was called normal.

The way we were living was extremely unusual in human history. My neighbor, John, asked me, “Why do we exist? Why are we alive?” One key reason is that our ancestors in Africa were really good at one thing; they weren’t bigger or faster than the animals they took down, but they were much better banding together into groups and cooperating. Just like bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe, and we are the first humans ever to disband our tribes, and it’s making us feel terrible.

As Professor Cacioppo explained to me, in the circumstances where we evolved, if you were separated from the tribe, you were depressed and anxious for a really good reason. You were in terrible danger. That’s still our instincts. I think one of the particularly crazy ideas we’ve had as a species that really this crisis should put paid to is individualism: the idea that we were lone cowboys out on the wilderness. And, by the way, even cowboys didn’t live like that in practice. We are a social species. We are one species. We stand or fall together. Someone in a wet market in Wuhan gets a virus, and it shuts down the Las Vegas Strip. This idea that we could ever be isolated individuals was absurd. The idea that you can live in your gated community or your palace alone, and that you will somehow be insulated from the rest of the species and their crises, pains, and problems was always a delusion. That was always going to fail, whether it was due to rising sea levels or a pandemic. So I think that’s another bad idea that this crisis gives us a chance to reevaluate.

You can pretend that you are an isolated individual who can just survive alone. But that was never true. Isolated individuals are always miserable, unhappy, deeply vulnerable, and incapable of solving these problems. Almost all the problems we face can only be solved at the level of the collective.  

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