Why Self-Help Isn't Helping
Johann Hari is the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream. He was a columnist for the Independent in London for nine years and was twice named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International UK. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Slate, the New Republic and the Nation. He has been awarded the Comment Award for Cultural Commentator of the Year by Editorial Intelligence, and has been named Journalist of the Year by Stonewall. His TED Talk `Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong' and animated video on the same subject has been viewed over 16 million times. Hari lives in London. His new book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions offers a radically new way of thinking about depression and anxiety, what causes these conditions and how we can solve them. chasingthescream.com / @johannhari101
Often, when a writer has a book coming out, there’s an embarrassing and minor anxiety that comes to you in the night with a jolt – what section of the bookshop will you end up being shelved in? Three years ago, I wrote a book about addiction and the war on drugs, and it ended up being sprayed across a whole range of sections in bookstores across the world – from True Crime to Psychology to Current Affairs to (in one strange twist, in a bookstore in Washington DC) ‘New Age’.
With my latest book, I’ve been feeling this anxiety particularly acutely, for one reason. I suspect the book will be filed under ‘Self-Help’ – yet in the three years I spent researching my new book I became convinced that the concept of self-help, and the ideology that underlies it, is part of the reason so many of us have been depressed and anxious for so long.
I began to see why in Downtown Berkeley, when I interviewed a brilliant social scientist named Dr Brett Ford. With her colleagues Maya Tamir and Iris Mauss — both professors — she had begun, several years before, conducting some research into a pretty basic question. They wanted to know: Does trying consciously to make yourself happier actually work? If you decided — today, now — to dedicate more of your life in 2018 to deliberately seeking out happiness, would you actually be happier a week from now, or a year from now?[i] The team studied this question in four countries: the United States, Russia, Japan, and Taiwan. They tracked thousands of people.
When they compared the results, they found something they had not expected. If you deliberately try to become happy, you will not become happier — if you live in the United States. But if you live in Russia, Japan and Taiwan, you will become happier. Why, they next wanted to know, would that be?
It turned out that if you decide to pursue happiness in the United States (and, I strongly suspect, Britain), you pursue it for yourself — because you think that’s how it works. You get stuff for yourself, you rack up achievement for yourself, you build up your own ego. I responded to my own depression for more than a decade mainly by doing this. But if you consciously pursue happiness in Russia or Japan or China, you do something quite different. You try to make things better for your group — for the people around you. That’s what you think happiness means, so it seems obvious to you.
These are fundamentally conflicting visions of what it means to become happier. And it turns out that our Western individualistic version of happiness doesn’t actually work — whereas their collectivist vision of happiness does. 'The more you think happiness is a social thing, the better off you are,' Dr Ford explained to me, summarising her findings and reams of other social science.
So the very idea of self-help is based on a mistake. Feel bad? Help your self. I began to see why this is failing so badly when I interviewed Professor John Cacioppo of Chicago University, the world’s leading scientific expert on loneliness. There is one reason why you and I are alive, and able to communicate like this, he explained. It is because our ancestors on the savannahs of Africa were extremely good at banding together in hunter-gatherer tribes, and working together very closely. We weren’t bigger or stronger than the beasts we took down. We were better at co-operating. Every instinct we have as humans is to live and work together as tribes in this way. Just like bees need a hive, humans need a tribe. That is who we are. They didn’t help the individual self. They helped the group. Otherwise, they would have died.
Yet a curious ideology over the past century has told us to disregard these instincts, and to think of ourselves primarily as individuals, who should serve our own cramped little self. In the book I go through nine causes of depression and anxiety for which I could find scientific evidence – and the deep loneliness this individualism has created is one of them. The ideology that when you feel bad, you should bolster your own individual ego is one key reason we have become imprisoned inside our own private selves, walled off where true connection cannot reach us.
As I learned this, I started to think of one of the most banal, obvious clichés we have: Be you. Be yourself. We say it to one another all the time. We share memes about it. We say it to encourage people when they are lost, or down. Even our shampoo bottles tell us — because you’re worth it. Individualism is so deep in the bones of how we think that we offer it as a pick-me-up.
But one of the things I learned on the long 40,000-mile journey researching this book was — if you want to stop being depressed, don’t be you. Don’t be yourself. Don’t fixate on how you’re worth it. It’s thinking about you, you, you that’s helped to make you feel so lousy. Don’t be you. Be us. Be we. Be part of the group. Make the group worth it. The real path to happiness comes from dismantling our ego walls — from letting yourself flow into other people’s story and letting their story flow into yours; from pooling your identity, from realising that you were never you — alone, heroic, sad — all along.
No, don’t be you. Be connected with everyone around you. Be part of the whole. Don’t strive to be the guy addressing the crowd. Strive to be the crowd.
Every solution I found with scientific evidence behind it, every answer to depression that actually worked, was based on an underlying insight. Don’t seek self-help. Seek collective help. Seek a way back to meaningful connection – to other people; to sane values; to the natural world. It’s the only way out of depression and anxiety.
So – can I suggest that instead of shelving my book in the self-help section, we put a health warning around the whole section, and leave it to rot?
XVIII. Reconnection One: To Other People
[i] They wanted to know: Does trying consciously to make yourself happier actually work? https://eerlab.berkeley.edu/pdf/papers/Ford_etal_inpress_JEPG.pdf, as accessed November 1, 2016. B. Q. Ford et al., “Culture Shapes Whether the Pursuit of Happiness Predicts Higher or Lower Well-Being,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication 144, no. 6 (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000108.
Author photo © Simon Emmett