Apr 5, 2020
The coronavirus crisis can teach us the need to reconnect
"The coronavirus crisis gives us a chance to reassess our values. Who are the key workers in the list of the people we desperately need right now? It's not rich people, it's not bankers, it's not Instagram stars. It's nurses, its cleaners, it's the people in our supermarkets filling our shelves".
"This crisis is an opportunity to reflect on moments in our life that were meaningful. It's a chance to turn to the sources of meaning in our life, draw on it and build meaning".
"This is a collective crisis and we need to solve this crisis collectively" - by demanding to our governments to take measures to reduce the financial insecurity by introducing universal basic income or by canceling people's rent and utility bills.
How the world will look like after the coronavirus pandemics, what are the lessons from this crisis, what will prevail on a global and human level - the cooperation or the isolationism, is it now the right time for universal basic income - I asked these questions the New York Times Best-Selling Author and Journalist Johann Hari.
His first TED talk, ‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong’, has been viewed more than 40 million times across all platforms. His second Ted talk, ‘This Could Be Why You Are Depressed or Anxious’, was viewed over 5 million times already.
The coronavirus pandemics put us in unprecedented times. Yuval Harari already defined this as the "worst pandemics in the last hundred years". The French president Mcron said that we are at war. How all this affects our mental health? Could we expect rise of anxiety and depression?
I would argue that we should call it emotional health, not mental health. Obviously I've been thinking a lot about this subject. So the answer to this question is yes, there will be an increase and a lot of distress. But also there's a lot we can do about that distress and there are ways we can use that distress to make life better.
What do you mean?
Some of the things I learned in the process of writing my book can help us to answer this question. So I wrote my book because there were these two mysteries that I didn't understand. The first mystery was: I'm 41 years old and all throughout my lifetime depression and anxiety have increased in Britain in the United States and across the Western world. I wanted to understand why. Why are so many of us finding it so much harder to get through the day? I waned to understand this because of a more personal reason - when I was a teenager I went to my doctor. I explained that I had this feeling like pain was leaking out of me. I didn't understand why. I was quite ashamed of it. And my doctor said: "Oh, there's just something wrong with your brain and all you need to do is take drugs." And the drugs gave me some relief. I took them thirteen years but for most of that time I was still depressed. And at the end of it I was asking myself: well what's going on here? Why do I still feel like this?
So I ended up going on a big journey all over the world interviewing the leading experts in the world about depression and anxiety and just people with very different perspectives on this question.
What I learned is that there's actually scientific evidence for nine different causes of depression and anxiety. Two of them are in our biology but most of them are in fact factors in the way we live. And I think the reason that this is crucial to answering your question about the coronavirus, is that many of those causes, that have been proven by scientists to increase depression and anxiety, are increasing now. But if we listen to this science, we can start finding solutions.
In the book you said that besides the biological causes of depression there are others, for example: disconnection from others, disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from nature, disconnection from a hopeful future. So this is where we are right now: We are isolated from others, from work, from nature. So how could we satisfy these needs right now? How could we cope with that? What would you recommend?
That's an excellent question. I think we have to be honest and tell people it's going to be difficult but there's a few things we can do. If something positive can come out of this, it's that we can develop a much more sophisticated understanding of what causes depression and anxiety. So that when we emerge from this crisis we can deal with them more effectively.
So I'll give you two examples of things that can be done, things that we can understand now. One is about loneliness. As you know I interviewed the leading expert in the world on loneliness - an amazing man named professor John Cacioppo. I remember him saying to me: "Why are we alive, why do we exist?" One key reason is that our ancestors on the savannas of Africa were really good at one thing: they weren't bigger than the animals, they weren't faster than the animals, but they were much better at banding together into groups and cooperating. Just like bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe. And even before this crisis we were the first humans ever to disband our tribes, to tell ourselves that we should live alone, that we can do it all alone. And and it made us feel terrible. There was a massive increase in loneliness. And obviously as we have to engage in social distancing, more of us are going to be alone.
But Professor Cacioppo explained a really interesting thing. When he began to study loneliness scientifically and he became the leading expert on it, he was trying to define loneliness. Obviously if you say to anyone what is like to feel lonely, everyone knows what it means. But actually defining it was quite difficult. Because instinctively we feel like being lonely is the same as being alone. But actually what Professor Cacioppo discovered is that there isn't that big an overlap between how many people you see every day and how lonely you are. So we've all had the experience of going to a new city, like you go to New York for the first time and you go to Times Square, you're surrounded by other people but you're lonely. Because you don't share anything with them. Or we've all had the experience at the other end, of being in a relationship that's breaking down, and you feel really lonely but the other person is still there. Professor Cacioppo was trying to figure out what's going on here. What he discovered is that loneliness is not the physical absence of other people. Loneliness is the absence of sharing something meaningful with other people. It's a feeling that you share meaning and understanding.
So it's going to be challenging. But we can still build ways of having meaning and connection with each other emotionally even as we have to be physically separated. I would recommend to people things as simple as phone all your old friends you haven't spoken to in years. Phone all the people who helped you in your life and thank them. I've been phoning all my old teachers I haven't spoken to in years and years. Turn to the sources of meaning in your life and draw on it, and build meaning. When we go forward after this crisis we can see how much of depression is caused by loneliness and we can begin to deal with that.
One of the heroes of my book is a doctor named Sam Everington and he's a doctor in East London where I lived for a long time. Sam had lots of patients coming to him with terrible depression and anxiety. Unlike me Sam is not opposed to chemical antidepressant - he thinks they have a real role to play. But Sam could see a few things right. One is that his patients were depressed and anxious for perfectly understandable reasons - they were lonely. Secondly, while the drugs he gave them, had some relief but in many cases they weren't solving the problem.
So one day Sam had an idea. A patient came to him called Lisa Cunningham who I got to know later. Sam said to Lisa: "Don't worry. We'll carry on giving you these drugs but we're also going to prescribe something else. I'd like you to turn up a couple of times a week at the doctor's surgery and meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people not to talk about how miserable you feel, but to find something meaningful you can do together." The first time the group met, Lisa literally started vomiting with anxiety - it was so much for her. But a group started talking. They were like: What could we do? And this were inner-city East London people, like me. They didn't know anything about gardening but they decided they were going to learn gardening. There was an area behind the doctor's surgery. They decided they were going to turn it into into a garden. So they started watching YouTube and taking books at the library. They started to get their fingers in the soil, they started to learn the rhythms of the seasons. There's a lot of evidence that exposure to the natural world is a really powerful antidepressant. But they started to do something even more important. They started to form a tribe, they started to form a group. They start to care about each other - if one of them didn't show up, the others would go looking for them and help them figure out what had gone wrong. The way Lisa put it to me: "As the garden began to bloom, we began to bloom".
There was a study in Norway in a very similar program that showed that it was more than twice as effective as chemical antidepressants and reducing depression and anxiety. I think for some obvious reason - it was dealing with one of the reasons why these people were depressed and anxious in the first place. I think when we emerge from this crisis, we should start building our sponsors to depression primarily around these things. A lot of people can see that they've suddenly been made lonely and that's going to make them depressed and anxious. When we get out of this, we can see a lot of people were already in quarantine - a lot of people were seeing hardly anyone, had very few meaningful connections. I think this crisis can teach us the need to reconnect.
So we were talking about things that can be done while people are in quarantine. Let's look at another one of the causes of depression and anxiety, for which there is really strong scientific evidence. Financial insecurity makes people depressed in a way that seems so obvious. A lot of people are feeling financially insecure right now. The global economy has effectively stopped. That's why it's so important that our citizens, we, demand that the government reduces the financial insecurity, that people are experiencing right now. El Salvador - one of the poorest countries in the world, the president there has canceled people's rent and utility bills for the duration of this crisis. You can see how that would automatically reduce a lot of the depression and anxiety that people are feeling. Because if you think you're about to lose your home or you're going to get into massive debt that's going to make you depressed and anxious. So one of the other things we should be doing even as we're in lockdown is demanding that our politicians take measures to reduce the financial insecurity that we're all facing. Our countries are still democracies. We can make these demands. I think that's very important.
What about the universal basic income? How it could help to reduce anxiety? Because many people will loose or already have lost their jobs in result of this crisis. So is it now the right time for this measure?
I think so. And if we think about it in relation to mental health it's really worth looking (in the book I described) at a really interesting experiment that happened in the 70's. The Canadian government chose a town at random. It's a town called Dauphin in Manitoba. To a large number of people in this town they said: "From now on we're going to give you a guaranteed basic income"- it is the equivalent of about $10,000 in U.S. dollars in today's money. It wasn't a huge amount of money but it was enough that you wouldn't be homeless. They said to people: "There's nothing you have to do in return to this money. And there's nothing you can do that we'll take it away unless you go to prison. We just want you to have a good life". There were a lot of studies looking at what effect this had. What was interesting was that almost nobody stopped working. There were some mothers who stayed with their babies longer rather to go back to work straight away. There was some young adults who went back to studying. But other than that nobody stopped working. There were lots of other effects. The biggest: there was a massive fall of mental health problems. Indeed mental health problems that were so severe that people had to be shut away in psychiatric hospitals fell by 9% in just three years. You won't find a drug that causes a fall within mental health problems of nine percent in three years. As the wonderful social scientist Evelyn L. Forget - she did the big study, said to me: "A universal basic income is an antidepressant". A big part of what I'm trying to argue in the book is that anything that reduces depression should be regarded as an antidepressant. And for some people that will mean drugs. But there are many more things that should be counted as antidepressants: that gardening program is an antidepressant. A universal basic income is an antidepressant.
Even if we weren't in the coronavirus crisis, I'm in favor of the universal basic income, but I think particularly in a moment like this, it's very hard for the government bureaucratically to guarantee people's wages. It's much simpler to give people a guaranteed basic income for the duration of this and that would massively reduce depression and anxiety.
And just going back to right where we started. This is one reason why I'm keen to call this emotional health rather than mental health. Because when people hear the phrase mental health, I think what they picture, is their biology, their brain, and something going wrong with their brain. Now that does happen sometimes, it's important to stress, but actually we are anxious and depressed now. There hasn't been an increase in depression and anxiety now, because suddenly something went wrong with our brain. Something went wrong with our society - we had to respond to a terrible global pandemic. So I think it's better to talk about emotional health because that helped to see more clearly the environmental causes of this crisis at the moment.
There's a lot of discussions right now about the psychological costs that this crisis would have on us. Do you think we are getting this right? There are many recommendations to meditate and "turn off the news". Do you think this is enough? I've done those things myself. And I think they're perfectly good advice. But I also want to be very cautious. There's a phrase, a critique of self-help books. It's called "cruel optimism". So cruel optimism is when someone has a really big problem like depression, obesity, whatever it is, and you give them a really simplistic solution. And you say: "Oh, this is going to solve your problem". It sounds like a kind thing to do: you're offering them a solution. But the reason why it's cruel, is because the solution for most people won't be enough. A small solution to a big problem generally does not work. And when it doesn't work, the person feels that they failed, that they weren't good enough: I did the thing I was meant to do and I still feel terrible. So I think there's an element of cruel optimism in saying to someone who's worried they're going to lose their home, and going to lose their job, and can't feed their children: "Oh, you just need to meditate and switch off the news". I think that's cruel. No, I'm not saying meditation won't help. For some people it will. I'm not saying that limiting your exposure to the news won't help - in some circumstances it will. Actually we need to turn on the news and as citizens change the news by demanding that our governments give us financial support. Rather than turning off the news, we need to change what the news is. And in democracies we can do that. So don't misunderstand me - I'm in favor of meditation. I'm not in favor of people watching the rolling news the whole time and getting into a panic. But I think this is a collective crisis and giving people exclusively individual solutions is not going to work. There are individual solutions that will help people but they're not going to be enough. We need to solve this crisis collectively as well.
What do you think will prevail during this crisis on a global and a human level - the cooperation or the isolationism?
That's a big question. And the honest answer is I don't know. But I think there are things we can learn from this.One of the causes of depression or anxiety that I think this crisis might help with, is the crisis of meaning that we have. So everyone knows that junk food has taken over our diets and made us physically sick. But there's equally strong evidence that a kind of junk values have taken over our minds and made us mentally sick. So for thousands of years philosophers have said: If you think life is about money, and status, and showing off, you're going to feel terrible, going to feel like shit. But weirdly nobody had scientifically investigated this, until an incredible man I got to know named Tim Kasser - professor of Psychology at Knox College in Illinois.
He discovered two really important things: firstly, the more you think life is about money and status, the more you will get depressed. And secondly as a society we have become much more driven by these junk values all throughout my lifetime. Just like you need nutrition to survive, junk food appeals to the part of you that needs nutrition, but actually makes you sick. Everyone needs a system of values to guide them through life and these junk values appeal to that part of us, but they actually trainer us to look for happiness in all the wrong places. And one of the things I think has been helpful about this crisis so far is it gives us a chance to reassess our values. Who are the key workers in the list of the people we desperately need right now? It's not rich people, it's not bankers, it's not Instagram stars. It's nurses, its cleaners, it's the people in our supermarkets filling our shelves. They were always the people who kept us alive. My grandmother was a cleaner. She was always more valuable than any billionaire you'd ever name.
What we get to see in this moment of crisis, is who should we be valuing more, and what's gone wrong with our system of values that we have been prioritizing billionaires, who don't contribute very much and are actually quite greedy and selfish, over nurses and cleaners and people working in supermarkets. So if this is a chance to reevaluate our values, that's a positive thing that will emerge from this terrible time.
How this crisis could changes us as a society? Where do you think we will end up after this crisis?
I think it's very hard to tell. If you think about the 2008 crash, we thought that would discredit right-wing politics. We didn't think it would lead to Donald Trump and Brexit. It's very, very hard to know how these big events will affect the global picture.
One of the things I learned in the research for my book "Lost Connections" is that, we've been taught for a really long time that depression and anxiety are mainly biological malfunctions in a person's brain or in their genes. And one of the things I learned is there's some biological causes but actually mostly depression and anxiety are not malfunctions. They are signals.Everyone reading your article knows that they have natural physical needs - obviously you need food, you need water, you need shelter, you need clean air. If I took those things away from you you'd obviously be in trouble really quickly. There is equally strong evidence that all human beings have natural psychological needs - you need to feel you belong, you need to feel your life has meaning and purpose, you need to feel that people see you and value you. You need to feel you've got a future that makes sense. And the culture we have built is good at lots of things - I'm glad to be alive today, but it's been getting less and less good at meeting people's underlying psychological needs. And now with the coronavirus many of our psychological needs are not being met. A depression and anxiety are mainly signals telling us that our deepest needs are not being met. And what we've done for a long time now, we've insulted that signal. We've either told people it's a sign of their weakness or just a sign that they're biologically broken, or that they're crazy. What we need to say to people experiencing that signal is: "If you're depressed and anxious, you're not weak, you're not crazy you're not a machine with broken parts. You're a human being with unmet needs."
We can change the way we live over time to get those deeper needs met. So one thing that I hope could change is the understanding of what depression and anxiety are. That they are signals, not malfunctions. That we have these feelings for reasons and we need to listen to the signal, and honor the signal, and respect the signal. Because it's telling us something we really need to hear.
But what will you tell to people that may be are saying that to think about emotional health at the moment is kind of luxury? Because if they loose their jobs, or their homes, maybe to think about emotional health is like thinking about luxury?
I think it's a really important question. I would say actually your ability to cope and survive in the material world is dependent on your emotional health. They flow both ways. So if the material world falls apart, your emotional health will fall apart. And if your emotional health falls apart, your material world will fall apart. So I don't think you can separate those things out. I mean it's absolutely true if you're about to lose your home and you're getting really sick with the coronavirus, I can totally understand what people were thinking, but actually it's precisely if we listen to our anxiety, that we can see what our unmet needs are and what we should do about them. So if people are anxious they're going to lose their home, that's a signal that we need to band together as a society and demand that our governments do what the government of El Salvador has done. If El Salvador can afford, it your government can afford it. This is not some fantasy. A lot of governments all over the world are doing this, including governments in very poor countries.
So I think that emotional health and your ability to cope and deal with your problems in the world, to cope with the crisis, are closely related. It's not like we can ignore one to deal with the other: that you've got to have good emotional health in order to survive and thrive.
How do you personally cope with the isolation and uncertainty? You said that you might have coronavirus and you've self-isolated yourself. Is it more difficult for you?
Yeah, it's hard. But like I said one of the things I've been really concentrating on is meaning.
It's interesting just before the crisis happened I was in Moscow. I interviewed a really brilliant Russian psychologist called Dmitry Leontiev. He said to me - these are not his exact words, I'm paraphrasing: "There's a big division between philosophy in Britain and America, and philosophy in Russia. In Britain and in America you think philosophy is about happiness and making yourself happy. Even in the American Constitution the pursuit of happiness is listed". He said: "When Russians here that, we laugh. We don't think life is about happiness. Happiness will come and go. You don't have much control over that". He said: "We think life is about meaning. And if you have a sense of meaning and purpose, that will carry you through moments of unhappiness. If you have meaning, you can survive very painful times". I thought that was so interesting and I've been thinking about that a lot.
I've been thinking not so much about how can I make myself happy - it's actually quite hard to do it in these circumstances. I'm thinking a lot about what's meaningful to me and the people I love. Like I said I'm phoning a lot of people I haven't spoken to in years. Just yesterday I spoke to a teacher who taught me when I was 17 - she really changed my life and I'm so grateful to her. I haven't spoken to her in a really long time. I phoned her and she was so happy to hear from me and I was so happy to hear her voice. And I told her how grateful I am to her.
My grandmother died twelve years ago. She was in a home and before she died there was a carer who was really kind to her. I called that carer and just said: "You know, I think all the time about how good you were to my grandmother. I'm so grateful to you".
So I'm thinking about moments that were meaningful to me in my life. I'm thinking about projects that are meaningful to me. That's been my main reaction.
So this is a time to be grateful and to reflect?
I think it's time to reflect on moments in your life that were meaningful. Think about how you can honor those people. And think about how you can build meaning in your life going forward. I don't mean that on an individual sense. One of the ways I think we should try to build meaning out of this, is think about what can we do as societies. To honor the people who are risking their lives for us right now. What can we do for the doctors and nurses? What can we do for the people who are cleaning our hospitals and our supermarkets? One thing we should fight for, is a really big increase in the minimum wage when this is over to thank and honor the people. They were already underpaid. We should be thinking of how we can thank and honor them for the incredible risks that they're taking right now. Also the people who work in care homes, caring to elderly people, who are really underpaid, who are risking their lives. I think one of the ways we can try to build meaning is to think about who's bailing us out right now. And what can we do to thank and help them when this is over.