How to spot unhealthy ideas that prevent true happiness

Consumerism is sort of like junk food—you can consume all you want but it's still never going to be filling.

Johann Hari: Of the nine causes of depression and anxiety I learned about for my book Lost Connections, there were a few that were really challenging for me because I realized how much I recognized them in myself. So one of the hardest – I have to tell you a story about something else first, but when I was, in 2009 on Christmas Eve—it makes it even sadder that this story happened on Christmas Eve. So I use to live on junk food. I used to eat appallingly.

And on Christmas Eve 2009 I went into my local KFC at lunchtime and I turned up and I gave my order—which is so disgusting I won’t even repeat it.

And the guy behind the counter said “Oh Johann, I’m so glad you’re here! Wait a minute.”

I was like, “Okay….”

So he walked off and he came back with all the other staff and they’d bought me a massive Christmas card. And they’d written in it “To our best customer.”

And so I was looking at this and my clogged heart sank. I thought, “This isn’t even the fried chicken shop I come to the most.” It was a very unfortunate low point.

But we all know, right, junk food has taken over our diets. Not admittedly to the extreme that I was, but junk food is increasingly dominating our diets and it’s making us physically sick.

One of the things that really shocked me in the research is that there’s really good evidence that something similar has happened with our minds. Our kind of junk values have taken over our minds and they’ve made us mentally sick.

So for thousands of years now philosophers have said, if you think life is about, you know, money and status and showing off you’re going to feel terrible, right? From Confucius on down, people have been warning us of that. But weirdly nobody had actually scientifically investigated it, until an incredible man I got to know called Professor Tim Kasser who’s at Knox University in Illinois.

So Professor Kasser knew when it comes to human motivation there’s basically—to put it crudely—two kinds of human motivation, right.

Imagine you play the piano. If you play the piano in the morning because you love it and it gives you joy, that’s an intrinsic motivation. You’re not doing it to get something out of it. You’re just doing it because that thing gives you joy, right?

Okay, now imagine you play the piano not because it gives you joy, but in a dive bar to pay the rent or because your parents are really pressuring you to be a piano maestro, or to impress a man, maybe some weird piano fetishist, right? That would be an extrinsic reason to play the piano. You’re not doing it for the experience itself. You’re doing it to get something out of it. You’re doing it one removed. You’re doing it to get something out of the experience.

Now we’re all a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic values obviously, and we change throughout our lives. But Professor Kasser discovered some really fascinating things. The first thing is, the more your life is dominated by extrinsic values—the more you’re doing things not because you think they’re important but because of how you’ll look to other people, how you’ll seem on the outside—the more likely you are to become depressed and anxious. It’s a quite significant effect that’s been found in 22 studies with depression and 14 studies with anxiety.

Now there are many reasons. I’ll give you just one. One of the things we know is that something that’s a real source of joy in human life, things that really necessary are what are called flow states, right? They’re moments when you’re doing something you really love. For me it’s writing. For someone else it might be running. It’s definitely not that for me. Or, you know, whatever. When your time seems to collapse you’re totally in the moment of what you’re doing and you’re flowing, right?

Extreme extrinsic values massively disrupt your ability to get into flow states. If you imagine you’re playing the piano. Imagine the guy’s playing the piano for intrinsic reasons, right, because it gives him joy. Now imagine suddenly he has to think, “Am I the best piano player in New York City today? Who’s better than me? How are these people listening to me? How are they judging me? Am I going to get paid for this?” You can see how it would jolt you out of the flow state, right? When you think extrinsically you get jolted out of flow state. There are many reasons why extrinsic values make us feel bad and they ruin the quality of your relationships. They crowd out intrinsic values.

There’s all sorts of things going on. But Professor Kasser is also showing that extrinsic values have been taking over our culture. We’re becoming more and more dominated by these extrinsic values. We are immersed in this way of thinking from the moment we’re born. More 18-month-old children recognize the McDonald’s M than know their own surname.

We are pickled in advertising messages telling us that life is about living extrinsically, right?

Imagine an advert that told you, “You know what? You’re great. You look fine. You smell nice. You’re amazing. You don’t need anything more today.”

That would be the worst advert that had ever been done, right? Advertising is the ultimate frenemy. It’s always telling you “Oh babe, I love you. It’s just, you know, if only you didn’t stink,” right?

Now what Professor Kasser showed as he puts it is at some level we all know this; everyone watching this knows you’re not going to lie, on the last day of your life you will not lie there and think about all the things you bought, right. You will not think about all the hours you put in at the office. You will think about moments of deep meaning and connection. But as Professor Kasser puts it we live in a machine that’s constantly diverting us from what is meaningful about life.

There’s a wonderful experiment that was done before Professor Kasser’s work, but I think it really illustrates this. It was done in 1978. It’s a very simple experiment. You get a lot of five year olds and you put them in a sand pit, and you split them into two groups.

The first group is shown two advertisements for a specific toy, whatever the 1978 equivalent of Peppa Pig was, right. And the second group is shown no adverts. And at the end of it they give all the kids a choice. They say “Okay kids, got a choice now. You can either play with a nice boy who doesn’t have the toy from the advert, or you can play with a nasty boy who’s got the toy.

The kids who didn’t see the ad mostly choose the nice boy without the toy. And the kids who saw the ad mostly chose the nasty boy who’s got the toy. So just two advertisements—two—primed those children to choose an inanimate lump of plastic over kindness and connection.

We are all being driven by way more advertising than that every day, right? Anyone watching this—and I would include myself in that—who stayed late at work doing something they don’t want to do to buy something they don’t need rather than… go be home with their kids maybe? You’ve fallen prey to that dynamic.

And Professor Kasser has really shown this way that we’ve got to unpick these junk values. These junk values are what we’ve been fed for so long. They’re a kind of KFC for the soul, and they’re making us feel terrible.

  • Author and journalist Johann Hari thinks that modern life sets you up to be depressed.
  • The constant insecurity we get from heavy marketing ruins true human connections, and doesn't lead to any growth for society as a whole.
  • But there's hope.

Johann's new book is the fascinating Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.

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