Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions

Have you ever thought what causes depression and anxiety, and what might be the ways to cope with them? Johann Hari wonderfully weaves together his own stories of coping with depression and anxiety as a teenager, and up through his 30s, when he started really investigating the topic.

Hari’s second investigative journalism book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions (2018, London: Bloomsbury), has been on the “best-seller” list in several countries. As with his first best seller in 2015 (Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs), he has traveled the world hunting for confirming research.

In his introduction, he says: “We have been systematically misinformed about what depression and anxiety are…The primary cause of all this rising depression and anxiety is not in our heads. It is, I discovered, largely in the world, and the way we are living in it” (p. 14). Rather than depression being caused by an imbalance of hormones in our brain, it is mainly the loss of social connections in our lives that causes neuro-chemical imbalances that lead to depression and anxiety, which have nevertheless created the multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.

One story he tells is of John Cacioppo’s early study in the mid 1970s in which people were asked to rate themselves on loneliness 9 times a day in response to a beeper. They wore a cardiovascular monitor to measure their heart rates. On the second day, they did the same and also spit into a tube, sealed it, and kept it to hand in to the lab. He was measuring how stressful loneliness was and how much cortisol was in each person’s saliva sample. “Feeling lonely, it turned out, caused your cortisol level to absolutely soar—as much as some of the most disturbing things that can ever happen to you” (p. 74).

Hari does not just complain about the way we have been taught to view depression and its treatments; he also includes a lot of hard data from a variety of researchers that can help us. His main focus is on:

Nine Causes of Depression and Anxiety (part 2 of the book)

Seven Ways to Reconnect
(part 3 of the book)

*  disconnection from meaningful work

*  disconnection from other people

*  disconnection from meaningful values

*  disconnection from childhood trauma

*  disconnection from status and respect

*  disconnection from contact with the natural world

*  disconnection from hope for the future

*  gene malfunction

*  brain changes

*  reconnecting with other people

*  social prescribing (e.g., joining singing, volunteer, or running groups)

*  reconnection with meaningful work

*  reconnection with meaningful values

*  reconnection with sympathetic joy for/with others (while overcoming addiction to the self)

*  acknowledging childhood trauma,

*  restoring the future (making sure people have something to look forward to)

Throughout the book, Hari explains the hard science of these phenomena as well as providing humanistic narratives that go along with them. He tells stories to illustrate each of the points in the table above, some of which are also included in his TED talks (2015 and 2019), which I highly recommend. These stories connect the research to our everyday emotions, which will make the book more appealing to the general public and politicians. Being adaptable humans, we also need to call forth our own stories to support the scientific explanations and guide us to better lives.

As I am writing, now in September 2020,[1] we have been through approximately half a year of social distancing, which may in fact be causing many more people than normal to be depressed and lacking in connections (see the Time article on page 29). At times on Zoom, I feel exhausted by the social attention that I am giving to students on my screens—a different kind of disconnect and mental overload. I am sure some students themselves also are having difficult times and are in need of re-connects. We could just give them information about the 9 causes of depression and 7 ways to overcome them, of course, but I have found it even more valuable to have them share these lists with their families and friends and to try to be aware of the Lost Connections we are all experiencing and how we might mitigate them. I give handouts to my students and ask them to memorize the 9 causes and 7 solutions. They create acronyms with a partner, to teach them to family and friends. Getting students to teach about these lost connections and the ways to overcome them takes the focus off the students themselves, without depriving them of the benefit; the more they teach them to others, the more they tend to learn them and become healthier themselves (Murphey, 2017a, 2017b).

[1] An earlier version of this review appeared in our June, 2018 issue on Mindfulness.


  • Hari, J. (2015). Chasing the scream: The first and the last days of the war on drugs. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

  • Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

  • Murphey, T. (2017a). Asking students to teach: Gardening in the jungle. In T. Gregersen, & P. MacIntyre (Eds.), Exploring innovations in language teacher education (pp. 251-268). Cham, Switzerland; Springer.

  • Murphey, T. (2017b). A 4-page condensed version of Tim Murphey’s book chapter “Asking students to teach: Gardening in the jungle,” available at Stanford University’s eNewsletter Tomorrow’s Professor, #590. https://tomprof.stanford.edu/mail/1590#

Tim Murphey is a part-time (semi-retired, as of 2019) professor at KUIS (RILAE), Wayo Women’s University Graduate School, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies Graduate School, and Aoyama University. He has an MA in TESOL from the University of Florida, and a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. [email protected]

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