The best treatment for depression lies in our evolutionary history

Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. So how do we reverse it?

Johann Hari: There’s a really heartbreaking study that asked Americans, “How many close friends do you have that you can call on in a crisis?” 

And when they started doing it decades 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.

And I thought a lot about that in so many of the places I’ve been in the United States. I interviewed and got to know an incredible man called Professor John Cacioppo, a world expert on loneliness. He’s at the University of Chicago. 

And Professor Cacioppo explained to me, you know, if you think about the circumstances where human beings evolved, right, we evolved—the reason why you’re able to watch this through your laptop or wherever you’re watching it, the reason why we exist is because our ancestors on the savannahs of Africa were really good at one thing. They weren’t bigger than the animals they took down but they were much better at cooperating than them. 

Every human instinct human beings have is to be part of a cooperative tribe, right. Bees need a hive. Humans need a tribe. And if you think about the circumstances where human beings evolved, if you were separated from the group you would become depressed and anxious for an incredibly good reason. You were in terrible danger. You were probably about to die. Those are the instincts we still have. 

Yet we’ve told ourselves a story that we can live without tribes. We are the first human beings ever to try to live without communities, to imagine that like some cowboy on the horizon—and even the cowboys didn’t do it this way—we can live alone, we can be alone. That’s not the species we are. 

And it’s causing, and Professor Cacioppo has proven that this loneliness epidemic is one of the key causes of the epidemic of depression and anxiety that we have across our society.

And I was really interested to find out well, who has acted on that? Who has tried to find an antidepressant for the loneliness crisis? I met an incredible man, one of the heroes of my book Lost Connections called Sam Everington. Sam is a doctor in East London, one of the poorest parts of East London actually where I lived for many years. 

And Sam was really uncomfortable because he had loads of patients coming to him who were depressed and anxious. And he had been told in his training even though he knew the science was much more sophisticated than this to tell people, “Well you feel this way because you’ve got a chemical imbalance in your brain,” and just give them drugs. 

Like me, Sam is not opposed to those drugs. He’s in favor of them but he just thought this is not enough. This isn’t solving the reason why these people are depressed and anxious. 

He could see how lonely and cut-off they were. So he pioneered a different approach. And I’ll tell you about it through one of the patients of his that I got to know. 

A woman called Lisa Cunningham came to Sam, and Lisa has been shut away in her home for seven years with crippling anxiety and depression. 

She came to Sam and Sam said to her, “Don’t worry Lisa, I’ll give you the drugs, whatever you need. I’m also going to prescribe something different. I’m going to prescribe for you to take part in a group. There was an area behind the doctor’s surgery that was known as “dog crap alley”, right. Because you can sense what it was like, they didn’t really use the word “crap,” I’m being polite. Just an area of scrubland. 

And what Sam said is what I’d like you to do is twice a week I’d like you to meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people. We’ll turn out and support you. And I’d like you to just turn this into something beautiful. 

The first meeting Lisa was literally physically sick with anxiety. Many of the other people there were shaking. And they started talking to each other. They didn’t know anything about gardening. They were inner city people from East London. As the weeks and months and then years went by, they taught themselves gardening. They had something to talk about that wasn’t how terrible they felt. They could reconnect with the natural world.

There’s incredible evidence that interacting with the natural world is one of the most powerful natural antidepressants we have. 

And, as human beings do when we’re in groups, they started to solve each other’s problems. There was a guy in the group who was sleeping on the night bus. Lisa thought, “Well, of course, you’re depressed, you’re sleeping on a bus!” 

She was outraged. Her and some other people in the group started pressuring the local authorities to get him housing. They succeeded. It was the first thing they’d done for someone else in years. It made them feel better than doing anything for themselves. And the way Lisa put it to me: As the flowers began to bloom, they began to bloom. 

There was a study in Norway which is part of a great body of research of a very similar program that found it was more than twice as effective as chemical antidepressants. I think for obvious reasons. It’s dealing with the reasons why they were so depressed and anxious in the first place. Everywhere I went in the world I found the most effective strategies for depression and anxiety were the places that were dealing with these deeper causes.

Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. In the space of just one generation, we've closed ourselves off and now spend more time in front of screens — on average, 10 hours a day according to a Neilsen report — than we do with our loved ones. Author and journalist and author Johann Hari explains that this isn't at all how the human species is supposed to behave. He suggests more actual face time with people, more community, and above all: becoming the social creatures that we have been for millennia. Johann's new book is the fascinating Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.

Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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