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Monday, 15 January 2018

Book review: Lost Connections, Johann Hari (2018)

This book claims novelty for its raison d’etre, and is optimistically subtitled ‘Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’ but sometimes the journalist’s technique falls down. Hari himself was diagnosed with depression when he was younger, so he approaches his subject from a position of knowledge born of experience.

He’ll be talking about a scientific study that has occupied his attention for a while by referring to the study’s author – for example, “Marc” – by his or her first name. However, by the time you get to this point in the narrative you’ve forgotten why the study had been undertaken, where it was done, and who performed it. The context has vanished and you feel for a moment you have been set adrift, until you decide to ignore the lapse in concentration the ellipsis inspires, and forge on regardless. This happens periodically even though at other times in the narrative Hari might go out of his way to reacclimatise you with the context of a study that had been discussed much earlier.

It’s not a devastating shortcoming, though, and in general the claims the book makes – which have a decidedly punk cast – are sensible. We live in a highly atomised society with junk values inspired by unbridled capitalism and a lot of the work people spend most of their time doing in order to earn a living, is deeply unfulfilling. Taking the classical punk complaint a step further and linking it with the increase in the incidence of a common mental illness is innovative.

In large part, Hari backs up his claims by quoting scientific studies. He travels – he says – 40,000 miles talking with people all over the world on his quest for the truth about the link between the malaise of contemporary society and the clinical illness of depression. He touches on such disparate things as meditation, studies involving the use of psychedelics, the universal basic income, street activism, and participatory democracy in the workplace (the cooperative model of organisations) in an effort to encourage the reader to find a better way to structure society, because while the book is not overtly didactic it is nothing if not ambitious.

I have to admit that the case is well made, especially the sections that deal with the participatory systems different people have developed at different times to deal with different circumstances. For example, where he describes the activities of a group of Berlin residents who protest against rising rents in their neighbourhood, the book reads like one of the later novels of Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese writer. Oe chronicles the activities of groups of people who move together – not always entirely without conflict – toward a shared goal. The way the individual is tolerated in such contexts can be enlightening. Elsewhere, he talks about how Asian societies do community participation better than we do it in the atomised West.

The book does on the other hand tend to be a little drawn out at the end – I would have cut a good dozen pages from this part of the book, where he reprises his main arguments as though his readers were all thoughtless children who need to be told everything twice lest they miss a point that has already been made.

Hari admits that he is particularly fortunate to be able to do the work he does – journalism is an elite practice, and one that is reserved only for the select few – but he hopes, you sense, that the issues that he has raised will be taken up by others in an effort to bring about the kind of broad political, social and economic changes that might enable people to reorient their relations with the outside world in ways that will result in fewer people being prescribed antidepressants. We need to work out how to structure society so that everyone benefits, not just the senior managers and shareholders of large pharmaceutical companies.

It’s a worthwhile goal for all of us, and one notable thing he points out in the book is that we all have one thing in common: we crave community as much as we crave control over our lives. The atomised version of modernity we currently inhabit is bad for our health, and we need to be part of larger undertakings in order to be able to find the fulfillment our humanity makes us desire. Fulfillment we otherwise might seek through the mere consumption of perishable and transitory physical objects.

In a way, though, Hari is a little pessimistic. The emphasis in that sentence should be on the word “might”. Most people already have communities of support that they resort to for the psychosocial sustenance they need, including workplaces, classrooms, hobbies, sports, churches, art, clubs, friends and family. It’s not all gambling machines and Nike sneakers. And you tend to have the kinds of purely material ambitions he describes less and less the older you grow. We do now also have the boon of social media – which he tends to disparage as a negative influence – where we can find community.

Another shortcoming with the ideas book propounds is the fact that people who freely exercise their critical faculties will always tend to find it hard to subsume their egos within the confines of a narrative whose only saving grace is that it is shared by a group of people. Such as journalists. We pay such people good money so that they will use their critical faculties to investigate society with an end of finding better solutions to common problems. Perhaps this is why Hari found social media disappointing: he’s just not naturally a joiner. But in the individualistic West we tend for good reason to privilege the ideas of the innovator over those of the run-of-the-mill. Asian societies are notably bad at tolerating difference.

Overall this is a debate that a lot of people will have been waiting decades for society to sit down and have with itself. Let’s hope others pick up some of the threads he lays down, and use them to form their own stories.

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