What if depression and anxiety–and many lesser forms of emotional distress–were caused not because of brain chemicals gone awry, but because we are not living in line with what is truly important? What if some of us, at least, could cure our mental malaise and do better by the world at the same time? What if, instead of using chemicals to change our brains, we used our brains to change out lives? In particular, what if we found more meaningful work?
The Standard Path: Adapting Our Brains To Our Sub-Standard Lives
For a long time, chronic depressions and anxiety have been thought to be–more or less–caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, not by the conditions of one’s life. The dominant treatment has been to use medication to change people’s brains to suit their lives.
But in a Guardian article, author of the book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari points out that antidepressants work much less often then the drug companies say they do. He says that drug companies hide research results that show their drugs not working. In fact, between 65 and 80% of people who take antidepressants are depressed again within a year.
That doesn’t mean they don’t work for everyone. For some people, they are an important and life-saving boost. And that’s great. But Hari’s research, he says, show the drugs don’t actually work for most people. So what would work?
According to Hari, scientists still don’t know for sure the causes of depression and even the prevailing theory that it is caused by low serotonin–a brain chemical–is unproven. But in talking to social scientists across the world, Hari found that a pattern emerged–people’s basic psychological needs are not getting met by the societies they live in.
He writes: “I kept learning that, in very different ways, we have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving this epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us.”
What are the psychological needs, Hari is talking about?
- We need to feel we belong.
- We need to feel valued.
- We need to feel we’re good at something.
- We need to feel we have a secure future.
This suggests that, at least in some cases, the problem is not that our brains don’t fit our lives but that our life situations don’t fit our brains. Depression, in other words, can be triggered–especially in those with a genetic predisposition–when we are in circumstances that don’t suit our temperaments.
If that is the case, some of us are taking drugs in the hope that we can change our brains to feel better about our sub-standard lives. That’s ok. It’s even great, if that is what you choose and it works for you. But what if there is another way?
The LifeQuester’s Path: Improving Our Lives To Suit Our Brains
Hari noticed that most of the depressed people he knew were amongst the 87% of people in our society who don’t like their work. To demonstrate, Hari tells a story, in his article, about a psychiatrist trying to get Vietnamese doctors to use antidepressants to cure depression. One doctor told the psychiatrist, he already knew how do cure it, and told this story about a rice farmer whose left leg was blown off by a landmine:
He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old job—working in the rice paddies—was leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living. So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression—which had been profound—went away.
What conditions could you change in your career and life that might help emotional distress go away?
For a long time, I have been writing about this: That in order to have truly happy lives, we have to contribute to making a truly happy world. Figuring out how we can make a real contribution in our work and in our lives is a path to belonging, feeling valued, and being good at something. All the research shows that working for bigger houses, cars and TVs won’t have the same positive effect on our happiness.
How do we make our lives meaningful? Well, of course, I have written whole books on this and run mastermind classes and coach people about it (in other words, it is a big subject). But one first step, after you have made an intention to find meaning is discern what would be meaningful to you. To do that, you can find an exercise I designed here.
Paradoxically, one way to make your life meaningful is to work to ensure that other people have the power to make their lives meaningful. Could doing something like that help cure your emotional distress?
And by the way, what I’ve said here is not so radical. Hari cites a United Nations World Health Day Report that says, when it comes to curing depression on a societal level, we need to concentrate less on chemical imbalances and more on the social power imbalances that make it so people are unable to choose lives that our meaningful.
PS If you are looking for more meaning and to join in with others who are doing the same, you may be interested in one of my How To Be Alive Mastermind Group. New groups are starting soon. Find out more here.
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