You never realize how boring your life is until someone asks what you like to do for fun.
Sometimes it feels like the world is actively conspiring against your happiness. Now before you start folding your tin foil hat, let me say that you might not be paranoid…
Right now there are a record number of people on antidepressants. So many that even if you’re not taking antidepressants, well… you still kinda are.
Enough people in Western nations consume — and then excrete — the medications that they’re at detectable levels in the water supply.
For the past few decades we’ve lived under the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your noggin. And while that is true for some people, more and more research is showing that our dissatisfaction may be due less to a broken brain and more to a broken life.
You don’t see so rapid a surge in cases of depression because our genetics or grey matter changed overnight. The world has shifted in ways that are detrimental to the psychological needs of the human animal. That persistent feeling of vague dissatisfaction may be a normal response to abnormal circumstances. The canary in the coal mine.
So journalist Johann Hari spent three years on a journey of over forty thousand miles conducting more than 200 interviews with social scientists and psychologists to discover what was wrong with the way we live today that was causing such an explosion of unhappiness.
His excellent book is Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
What he found was that while our world has become very technologically connected, all the sources of unhappiness stem from a growing disconnection in other areas of our lives.
Let’s find out how to reconnect. And how to live happier lives…
Disconnection From Other People
Loneliness is the equivalent of being punched in the face. I mean, literally.
Your stress response to both — the increase in your body’s cortisol level — is the same.
And have no illusions, loneliness is an epidemic in the modern world. A few decades ago, the average US citizen reported having three close friends. Since 2004 the most common answer is…
I can already hear some people crowing: “I might be dissatisfied but how could it be due to loneliness? I’m always around people.”
Turns out there’s a difference between being lonely and feeling lonely. This is why someone who works a job surrounded by people and then goes home to a spouse and children, can spend very little time alone — and yet still feel profoundly lonely.
So what do we need to do? To prevent feeling lonely, we must share something with those around us — something meaningful to both you and them. A belief. A cause. An activity. A goal. We need to be “in it together” — not merely together in the middle of a faceless crowd.
So join a group. Harvard researcher Robert Putnam has studied group activities for decades — everything from bowling leagues to volunteer groups.
Between 1985 and 1994 involvement in community organizations declined by 45%.
Famed biologist E.O. Wilson once said, “People must belong to a tribe.” Increasingly, we don’t. But you can fix that.
We all know relationships are critical. But there’s something else the modern world is lacking that’s a lot less obvious but no less important…
Disconnection From Values
Your pursue “intrinsic values” when you do something solely because you love it. You pursue “extrinsic values” when you chase money or status. Being a patriotic soldier is intrinsic; being a mercenary is extrinsic.
The lesson from the research is clear: the more extrinsically motivated you are, the more you feel motivated by money or status, the more depressed and anxious you are.
I know some people are jumping to say, “Well, I’m not like that!” But, to a degree, we have all become more extrinsically motivated. We all care, to some degree, what others think of us and technology often amplifies this to toxic levels. Facebook and Instagram have become gladiatorial status tournaments to show off how cool our lives are.
But when we’re counting “likes” on social media, we let others control our self-esteem. And that places your own happiness outside your control. Not good.
And even if you win, you lose. Studies show that the achievement of extrinsic goals — the fancy car and the impressive promotion — bring no lasting happiness. None. Meanwhile, when we pursue intrinsic goals like being a better parent or trying to improve our writing skills so our blog posts don’t suck, we feel much happier and less anxious.
You experience “flow” when you’re so involved in something that you lose track of time. You know the old saying: “time flies when you’re having fun.” Flow is a huge contributor to happiness.
And the more focused we are on extrinsic goals like status, the fewer flow states we experience.
Spend a little more time with people that make you smile and doing the things that make you smile — simply because they make you smile.
So you’re connecting with people and connecting with your intrinsic values. Great. What’s another connection we’re getting less and less of that the human animal needs?
Just like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location…
Disconnection From Nature
All other things being equal, move closer to nature and you’ll be happier. Move away from nature and you’ll be more depressed.
Some might say that’s because rural areas have less crime or less pollution or… Wrong.
If you live in the part of a big city with lots of trees, you get happier. Cart yourself over to the section of the city that’s nothing but concrete and you get sadder.
We use our big human brains so much that we think we’re machines and forget we’re animals. But we are animals.
Leave the Panda in the forest with his bamboo and he’s happy. Move him to a zoo and he mopes around, feels stressed out and loses all interest in making little Pandas. Humans aren’t all that different.
So what do we do? We simply weren’t meant to spend all our time going from cubicle to couch. Feeling happier can be as simple as spending more time in nature.
The research all says that exercise makes us happier. Guess what? When you exercise outdoors the effect is even stronger.
Alright, we’ve learned a lot. We’re going “psychologically Paleo” and getting more of what our ancient physiology needs from the very modern world.
Time to round it all up — and find out why so many of our efforts to be happier often fail…
Here’s how to be happy in today’s crazy world:
- Connect With People: Just being around others isn’t enough. Join groups that you share something with. You need to be “in it together” to hit back when loneliness punches you in the face.
- Connect With Your Intrinsic Values: More “flow” and fewer selfies. More doing what you love because you love it. Chasing status doesn’t lead to lasting happiness; it puts happiness outside your control.
- Connect with Nature: Go outside for a reason other than to pick up that box from Amazon.
So what happens when you make a consistent, concerted effort to be happier?
You fail miserably. No joke. Deliberate efforts to be happier do not work… in the US and UK, that is.
What’s going on? It’s not that happiness is unachievable or that hard work isn’t rewarded. The issue here is that the US and UK have the most individualistic cultures. And so the efforts people in those countries make are usually individualistic…
But happiness comes from our connections to other people.
And so when we work toward just making ourselves happy as individuals we often fail. But when we work towards the happiness of a group, we usually succeed.
The modern world promotes a culture of “be yourself.” But if you want to be happy, that isn’t always the best idea.
To find more joy, spend a little less time being you and little more time being us.