You know you should think positive.
No excuses. Take 100% responsibility for your life.
If your life isn’t what you want it to be, there’s no one to blame but yourself. Your thoughts attract your experiences.
Want something different? Then think different.
That’s the message of almost every self-help book on the market.
And when you see self-help gurus like Gabrielle Bernstein and Mastin Kipp preach the Law of Attraction—while raking in the dough—you have to admit it works for them.
But Johann Hari has a different story to tell.
A British journalist who fell from grace in a spectacular way, Hari rallied his career with a New York Times bestselling book on depression. The book was lauded by none other than Elton John. Hillary Clinton and Ariana Huffington loved it, too.
It was the kind of comeback that could have positioned Hari as a guru, someone who faced his darkest hour and came back with secrets for the rest of us.
Hari had taken antidepressants for over a decade, starting when he was a teenager. Today, he says, he’s off the drugs and a “massively” happier person, thanks to what he learned in the course of researching this book.
The story we often hear about unhappiness is that it’s our fault. We’re not being positive enough. We’re not maintaining enough balance in our lives. We’re letting stress get to us.
And on the off chance that it isn’t our fault, then it’s the fault of biology. Our brains aren’t producing enough serotonin. We need to eat better, exercise more, pop a pill.
Making yourself happy is exhausting.
But solving the distress in our lives isn’t a simple matter of fixing the part of us that’s broken, Hari suggests.
That’s because you might not be broken at all.
Your emotional distress might be a legitimate response to the challenges of your life.
And genuine relief lies in addressing those challenges, not covering them up with a Band-Aid.
Hari tells stories about women stuck in impossible circumstances. Losing their home, facing the death of a child, trapped in a dead-end marriage.
These women needed material and emotional support, but often what they got was a diagnosis of depression and a prescription for antidepressants.
Research into the social origins of depression back in 1970s London had revealed a disconcerting fact…
If you had “long-term sources of stress and insecurity in your life” AND something really bad happened to you, then “your chances of becoming depressed didn’t just combine: they exploded.”
Yet even that wasn’t a guarantee you’d develop depression.
Without supportive friends and a partner, Hari reports, “your chances of developing depression when a severe negative life event came along were 75 percent. It was much more likely than not.”
I wondered what it might feel like for these women if they’d been told they had to think more positively, stop being so pessimistic, and envision the life they wanted rather than the life they had.
They already had all the burdens of the world on their shoulders. Being told that they were responsible for getting themselves out of the mess they were in would have felt like the final straw.
Hari offers a different path forward.
Instead of victim-shaming under the guise of self-empowerment, what we should be doing is promoting connection.
The problem with self-help, he explains, is the emphasis on self. You got yourself into this mess, so you’ve got to get yourself out.
But what if it takes a village to restore emotional health?
Hari believes that depression and anxiety have their roots in disconnection. Disconnection from meaningful work, other people, meaningful values, childhood trauma, status and respect, the natural world, and a hopeful or secure future.
A healthier, happier world lies in the direction of greater connection.
“Human beings have innate psychological needs just as we have physical needs,” he tells The Guardian.
We need to feel we belong, that we have meaning and purpose, that people value us and that we have autonomy. We also live in a culture that’s not meeting those psychological needs for most people. It does not manifest as full-blown depression and anxiety in most people; for some people it’s just a feeling of unhappiness and a life less fulfilling than it could have been. We’ve built a society that has many great aspects, but it is not a good match for our human nature.”
These days, when Hari begins to feel down, he doesn’t put on his favorite music or treat himself. Instead, he puts a smile on someone’s face.
Connection makes us happy and whole.
Whether it’s connection with those we love, connection with causes that are meaningful to us, or connection to nature, feeling like we’re part of something bigger helps us transcend the pain of our own suffering.
It helps us see that our lives have value. We’re not in it alone.
In a connected world, positive thinking has its place. We all feel better when we look on the bright side.
But when looking on the bright side means overlooking disconnection, we’re letting ourselves down.
What do you think? Do you see a relationship between disconnection and unhappiness? Can positive thinking overcome adversity? Is it not either-or? Share your opinion in the comments.
 Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018).