Why unequal societies have higher rates of depression and anxiety
Could an economic revolution end the depression epidemic?
Johann Hari is the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream, which is being adapted into a feature film. He was twice named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International UK. He has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a lead op-ed columnist for the Independent, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, for nine years. He is a regular panelist on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. His TED talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” has more than 20 million views.
Johann Hari: When I feel depressed, like loads of people I say, “I feel down,” right?
And as I was learning about the causes of depression and anxiety for my book 'Lost Connections' I started to realize—I don’t think that’s a metaphor. There’s this amazing professor at Stanford called Robert Sapolsky who, in his early twenties, went to live with a troop of baboons in Kenya. And it was his job to figure out: when are baboons most stressed out?
So his job was to hit them with little tranquilizer darts and then take a blood test and measure something called cortisol, which is a hormone that baboons and us release when we’re stressed. And baboons live in this hierarchy—so the females don’t, interestingly—but the men live in a very strict hierarchy. So if there’s 30 men, number one knows he’s above number two. Number two knows he’s above number three. Number 12 knows he’s above number 13. And that really determines a lot; it determines who you get to have sex with, it determines what you get to eat, it determines whether you get to sit in the shade or you’re pushed out into the heat. So really it's significant where you are in the hierarchy.
And what Professor Sapolsky found is that baboons are most stressed in two situations. One is when their status is insecure. So if you’re the top guy and someone’s circling which comes for you, you will be massively stressed.
And the other situation is when you feel you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy, you’ve been kind of humiliated. And what Professor Sapolsky noticed—and then it was later developed by other scientists—is, when you feel you’ve been pushed to the bottom, what you do is you show something called a submission gesture.
So you, baboons will raise— I say “you,” I assume no baboons are watching this, maybe they are—a baboon will put its body down physically or put it’s head down or put its bottom in the air and it will cover its head. So it’s clearly seems to be communicating: “Just leave me alone. You’ve beaten me, okay? You’ve beaten me.”
And what lots of scientists, like Professor Paul Gilbert in Britain and Professor Kate Pickett and Professor Richard Wilkinson, also in Britain, have really developed is this idea that actually what human depression is, in part—not entirely, but in part—is a form of a submission gesture. It’s a way of saying, “I can’t cope with this anymore,” right. Particularly people who feel they’ve been pushed to the bottom of hierarchies. Or who feel, if you remember the other stressful situations, when your status is insecure, it’s a way of just going, “Okay, I retreat. I don’t want this fight anymore. You’ve beaten me.” It’s a kind of very strong evolutionary impulse where you feel you’re under attack, to just submit in the hope that the stress and anxiety will then go away, that the sources of the stress and anxiety will then go away.
And one thing that’s so important, and that’s what Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson really developed, is they’ve shown that as inequality grows, depression and anxiety grow. They’ve shown this is a very robust effect, right. This helps us to explain it. If you live in Norway your status is relatively secure, right. No one’s that high, no one’s that low. Movement between where you are is not so extreme.
If you live in the United States, especially today, where we’re at the greatest levels of inequality since the 1920s, there’s a few people at the very top, there’s a kind of precarious middle, and there’s a huge and swelling bottom, right. So you can see why in the United States you’ve got more people who would be showing a submission gesture, who would be like, “Oh Jesus, I’ve been beaten,” than there would be in Norway.
This is why inequality is one of the drivers of depression and anxiety, and why dealing with inequality reduces inequality and anxiety. It’s one of the things that really shocked me actually. In the United States, the group with the lowest depression by far is the Amish. So I went and spent time with an Amish community.
The Amish live in these homogenous groups which are incredibly equal. The richest Amish is worth as much as the poorest Amish. They’re not showing submission gestures in the same way because they don’t fit—there’s a lot wrong with the Amish, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting mass conversion to the Amish; I’m a gay man, believe me, I’m not—but we can learn from the fact that in these highly equal and homogenous groups you don’t have that extreme status stress. Now I don’t want to go as far as the Amish do, but moving closer to it would be one of the factors that would reduce depression and anxiety.
Expressions like "feeling down" or "feeling low" are more literal than we think, says Lost Connections author Johann Hari. A 30-year field study of wild African baboons by the incredible Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky has shown that there is a remarkable relationship between depression, anxiety, and social hierarchies. Male baboons—who live in a very strict pecking order—suffer the most psychological stress when their social status is insecure, or when they are on the bottom rung, looking up at the luxuries of others. Does it sound familiar yet? "If you live in the United States... we’re at the greatest levels of inequality since the 1920s," says Hari. "There’s a few people at the very top, there’s a kind of precarious middle, and there’s a huge and swelling bottom." It's no coincidence that mental health gets poorer as the wealth gap continues to widen: depression and anxiety are socioeconomic diseases. The silver lining is that this relationship has been discovered. Could an economic revolution end the depression epidemic? And, most curiously, what can we learn from the Amish on this front? Johann Hari is the author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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