For a conversation about depression, this week’s episode of The Ezra Klein Show is a joy to listen to. Guest Johann Hari, author of the new book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, giggled profusely over an unintentionally hilarious slip of the tongue regarding the book Bowling Alone, joked about his former KFC addiction, and profanely paraphrased Confucius — “If you think life is about money and status and showing off, you’re gonna feel like shit.”
Despite the jovial tone of the conversation, Hari is serious about the implications of his research. Lost Connections was very much informed by his work on his previous book, Chasing the Scream, about the failures of the war on drugs. He discusses the “Rat Park” experiments in which lab rats that were given access to opioid-laced water were dying from overdoses until their social needs were fulfilled and they stopped getting addicted. In many ways, he sees addiction — to opioids, to porn, to online video games — as a response to needs going unmet.
The podcast covers a wide range of topics related to this idea that depression is, to a large extent, societally created and what we can do to make our societies happier. Hari’s book recommendations reflect the idea that the state of our mental health is largely a reflection of the world around us.
Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me, which inspired the term mansplaining, wrote about her experience recovering from an earthquake in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She found that the overwhelming response to natural disasters is one of solidarity, and many people even found joy in helping their community rebuild. To Hari, the book asks the important question: “How do we hold on to those moments beyond the crisis zone?”
He also recommends Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. The book about overlooked activist victories is a celebration of political engagement, which Hari calls “particularly necessary at the moment, for reasons I don’t need to summarize.”
Hari calls This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein a “tour de force of the social crisis we’re facing.” The book and subsequent documentary argue that not only is climate change the most dire issue the globe is facing today, but that combating it requires a fundamental reorganization of our economic and social structures.
Hari ties This Changes Everything into his own research by saying “a species engaged in destroying their own habitat should feel anxious and depressed.” He draws a comparison between feelings of distress over the environment and Tums. According to Hari (who grew up in London), indigestion pills “completely baffle British people ... because indigestion is a signal from your body that you’re eating too fast. That’s not a malfunction; that’s a function.” Similarly, he believes that anxiety should be treated as a serious warning rather than a pathology.
Hari’s next project is a biography of Noam Chomsky, so it makes sense that he’d recommend a book by the modern philosopher. Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, written with economist Edward S. Herman, relates to the latter half of the conversation about why, if there are relatively easy fixes to our society’s happiness problem, those changes aren’t implemented. According to Hari, the book does a good job of “helping us to understand the ways in which our consciousness gets constructed ... that divert us from genuinely understanding what’s going on.”
You can listen to Johann Hari on The Ezra Klein Show by subscribing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, or by streaming the episode here: