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Wednesday 24 October 2018

Are 'junk values' making us depressed?

Johann Hari's divisive new book has as many celebrity endorsements as it has critics. The former journalist chats to Katie Byrne about his battle with depression and the plagiarism scandal that almost ended his career

High praise: Johann Hari’s book has been endorsed by stars such as Elton John. Photo: Damien Eagers
High praise: Johann Hari’s book has been endorsed by stars such as Elton John. Photo: Damien Eagers

If Johann Hari ever wants to run a celebrity telethon, he need only sift through the endorsements for his latest book. Elton John describes it as life-changing; Brian Eno "honestly couldn't put it down". Naomi Klein is "convinced that the more people read this book, the better off the world will be" and Hillary Clinton says it's a "wonderful and incisive analysis of the depression and alienation that are haunting American society".

Bono has yet to weigh in but it's fairly safe to conclude that Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes Of Depression - And The Unexpected Solutions is heading towards the top of the bestseller list, where it will probably stay for quite some time. In it, Hari identifies nine key causes of depression and anxiety.

The journalist-turned-author is pleased with the buzz around the book when we sit down to chat after a sellout talk in Dublin, but he won't be "getting high on the ego gratification" of it. That's "junk values", he says, quoting a catchy term he coined. "You can get high on that ego stuff, but it's actually quite a shallow high," he adds.

Hari started researching Lost Connections three years ago when he realised he could no longer ignore the questions he had about his depression and anxiety. Why, he wondered, was he still depressed when he was taking antidepressants? Could there be such thing as "social antidepressants" as well as pharmaceutical ones?

It was the start of an exploration that took the Swiss-British writer on a journey to an Amish village in Indiana, a Berlin housing project, a Brazilian city that has banned advertising, and back to the day he took his first antidepressant outside a pharmacy in a shopping centre in London when he was 18 years old.

After explaining to the doctor that he cried almost every day since he was a child, Hari was shown a picture of the brain, told that depression is a brain malfunction and given a prescription for Seroxat (Paxil).

He felt better at first - something he now attributes to the placebo complex and the comfort he took from finally having a biomedical narrative - but the depression soon returned and increasing the dose didn't help.

Hari (39) continued to take antidepressants for 13 years before gradually weaning himself off them. He didn't experience any withdrawal side effects save for "massive weight loss", "rediscovery of sexual joy and pleasure" (the drug made his genitals sensitive and sex had become painful) and the motivation to write a book that looked deeper into the causes of depression and anxiety.

Critics of the book claim Hari is urging readers to abandon their medication. This isn't true. "I certainly don't want to take away anything that's giving relief to anyone," he writes early on. "If you feel helped by them, and the positives outweigh the side effects, you should carry on."

He does, however, cast doubts on the marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies and the chemical imbalance theory that links depression with low serotonin levels. It's a controversial topic, made all the more controversial by its author. Hari left the UK Independent in 2011 after he admitted plagiarising the work of other writers and editing the Wikipedia pages of people he had clashed with.

He has since written a New York Times bestselling book, Chasing the Scream, and delivered a TED talk that has been watched over eight million times, but his fall from grace hasn't been forgotten and critics of his work usually resort to ad hominem attack.

To be clear, Hari inserted quotes that had been gleaned by other writers during interviews into some of his own interviews. Some called it "quote-lifting", many more called it plagiarism. There was a point when the exact definition mattered to Hari, but he now looks at it differently.

"It's so obviously wrong what I did that, in a way, it doesn't matter what term you use for it," he says. "It's obviously wrong to say that someone said something to you and they actually said it to someone else.

"I did not think of it as plagiarism at the time but what people said to me afterwards - which I found persuasive - was if you interview someone and you ask the right questions to get this thing out of them, then that is a talent and a skill and if I act like I did that, it's taking something from them."

Hari talks quickly, but he cross-examines every word that comes out of his mouth. Maybe the former journalist can see the flashing cursor of the word processor in his mind's eye so he speaks as conscientiously as he writes - rephrasing sentences that need an edit and reaching for words that better convey his point.

Or maybe he feels like he has to regain his credibility, which would explain his decision to put audio files of the interviews conducted for this book, and the last one, online.

"I think I try to be precise in what I say for a number of reasons," he explains. "I like to think that 70pc of why I do it is because I think it's really important to be accurate in this age of Donald Trump screaming that everything is 'fake news'.

"And obviously 30pc of that is related to the controversy I was involved in. And I think if you f***ed up, you should be at the highest possible bar of transparency, and the highest possible bar of transparency that I could meet is to put all the audio for the books online... I can be slightly irritating for an interviewer..."

He's not irritating. Actually, he can be quite laid-back as I discover when my voice recorder decides to give in mid-interview. "It'll all be fine," he assures me. "You won't even remember this next week..."

Those who have followed Hari's journalism career will probably be surprised to hear that the hard-line leftie has softened somewhat. He quotes the philosopher Krishnamurti and recommends loving-kindness meditation in Lost Connections. Will he be posting 'If life gives you lemons' quotes on Instagram next?

"I have shifted on that," he smiles, before adding that the research for Lost Connections made him more open-minded about the religious beliefs and practices of others. He won't be converting any time soon, but he has certainly come around to the importance of being part of a community and living in service to others.

In the past, when he felt depression or anxiety setting in, he would do something for himself. "I would buy something, or watch a film I like, or read a book I like, or talk to a friend about my distress." These days, he does something for someone else.

He has also changed his relationship with social media and says his mental health improved considerably when he stopped looking at what was written about him online. "I use it to broadcast but not to receive," he explains. "I have a friend, Lizzy, who handles most of it for me, so I only look at the mentions that pass through my timeline."

These lifestyle changes are just some of the "social antidepressants" that Hari explores in the book, but the greatest learning curve, he says, was realising that his depression was trying to tell him something.

"I thought of my pain as an irrational pathology, like a malfunction," he says. "And actually what I realised was that it was a function. If your needs aren't being met, you will feel terrible and that's a necessary signal to change your life."

  • Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression - And The Unexpected Solutions (€17.99, Bloomsbury) is in bookshops now.

Hari’s real causes of depression

1. Disconnection from meaningful work.

2. Disconnection from other people.

3. Disconnection from meaningful values.

4. Disconnection from childhood trauma.

5. Disconnection from status and respect.

6. Disconnection from the natural world.

7. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure

future.

8 & 9. The real role of genes and brain

changes.

Irish Independent

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