Book Review: Lost Connections, by Johann Hari

Book Review: Lost Connections, by Johann Hari April 25, 2019

Editor’s Note:   This is an excellent review of what sounds like an excellent book – not about religion, but about depression.  Of course, depression can strike anyone, and it is also a condition suffered by many people as they ponder their situation as religious leaders who are no longer religious. The writer of this essay, a Dennett-LaScola study participant and one of the original members of The Clergy Project, has urged me to read this book, and I will./Linda LaScola, Editor


By Catherine Dunphy

I first met the author, Johann Hari, in 2012 when he requested to interview me about the Clergy Project and its founding.  At the time, I was acting Executive Director of the project.  What struck me about Johann’s interview style was his unabashed curiosity and drive to understand.  His first book, Chasing the Scream, came out in 2015.  It’s a fascinating dive into drug addiction – its causes and the experience of individuals caught up in the web of criminalization.  His TED Talk about this book has over 11 million views!

My experience of Johann is that he is a great listener.  Having read his books, I know he is an even better storyteller.  He digs down into the sogginess of life, excavating meaning like an emotive archaeologist.

Johann’s latest book, Lost Connections, published in 2018 by Bloomsburg, is to depression what Chasing the Scream is to addiction.

It’s a grand quest, a heroic epic – all in search of understanding, truth, and knowledge that has the power to be transformative.  Johann begins the book with a story set in Vietnam about an apple that was purchased from a street vendor.  It was “freakishly large, red and inviting”.   Once he bit into the apple, he knew immediately that there was something wrong.  It had a bitter and chemical taste.  Within a few hours, he was severely sick with stomach pains and decided to stay in his hotel room to recuperate.  After several days, he grew impatient with his condition and pressed on in his efforts to track down survivors of the Vietnam War.  During one of these interviews, he erupted in illness and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital.  As he begged the doctor for anti-nausea medicine, the doctor refused, saying,

“You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.”

This is a simple message that resonates both in the book and in the real world.  Very often we ignore or push past pain or illness. Toughing ourselves against the limits of our bodies and never stopping to ask,

“What is my body trying to tell me?”

We ignore, invent excuses or look for a quick fix so that we can go back to the status quo.  The same process is at play in depression. For this book, Johann did hundreds and hundreds of interviews.  The discussions in his book include interviews with people with depression, social scientists, medical doctors, researchers, community organizers, advocates and others.  He talks to all these people to try to tease apart the narrative that we’ve accepted regarding the causes of depression.  Hari unabashedly shares his personal experience suffering from depression, the options he was offered for treatment and their success rate.  Years of drug treatment provided little in the way of sustained relief from the “grief oozing out of him.” Despite the lackluster effects for himself, Hari does not dissuade the reader from the use of anti-depressants; in fact, he indicates that they do help some people. However, he does push to expand the definition of an anti-depressant to include everyday things that bring you joy, such as a change in career, meditation or even a cow.

Hari’s book is a compassionate dialogue about the gut-wrenching events that impact our wellbeing, our failure as a society to address these issues effectively and how our external values can poison our happiness. It is evident throughout this book that we have lost something almost sacred: a component of community, of acceptance, of belonging.  We are not just metaphorically set adrift – we have become like islands.

Lost Connections challenges readers to bridge these divides.  The author asks readers to access their lived experience, to embrace their suffering, to reject shame and most importantly to reach out.

Hari’s final words, summarize it best:

“It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source – and only there when we see its true causes, can we overcome it.”


Bio: Catherine Dunphy– A humanist, atheist and former Roman Catholic chaplain, Catherine is a member of the Clergy Project and former Executive Director.  She is also author of From Apostle to Apostate – the Story of the Clergy Project, published by Pitchstone Press in July, 2015.

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  • It is evident throughout this book that we have lost something almost sacred: a component of community, of acceptance, of belonging. We are not just metaphorically set adrift – we have become like islands.

    Sounds like hyper-individualism. Does the author find the depression is especially strong within the country which excels most at hyper-individualism—America? I’m glad to see that Hari cites Putnam’s Bowling Alone; too much mental illness is attributed to bad brain chemistry, as if that is any more of a cause than a bullet fired from a gun. It appears that Hari does not cite Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, which is the most concentrated, empirically-supported work I’ve seen which suggests that perhaps it is society which is sick, not just the individual.

    I think we should question just how this sickness runs. There has been a long-running animus against mediating institutions in political thought: these are entities which stand between the individual and the state, like the family and voluntary organizations (such as churches, or the Lion’s Club). Just consider the social contract: individuals (not even families!) are posited who need nothing less than a full-on State to protect them from each other. This is deeply ahistorical and atomizing. The Enlightenment’s focus on equality was important, but it needed the Counter-Enlightenment’s focus on locality. Community only exists at the local level and communities are not made from a single cookie-cutter.

    Two quotations:

    To destroy a people you must first sever their roots. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

    The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. (George Orwell)

    Unfortunately, this is what Modernity did. Consider the young woman who is paid minimal wages to travel to the city and work 16-hour days at the mechanical loom. One need not be a Luddite to see this as dehumanizing. Today, one no longer needs slavery to tear families apart: merely incentivize them to move thousands of miles away from home to a new incarnation of the mechanical loom—and one that probably doesn’t enable human flourishing nearly as much as affordable clothing. I live in an epicenter of this: San Francisco, the city almost no tech giants care about—except to use as a means to their ends. I don’t think technology has to be used this way, but that seems, by and large, how it is being used now. (N.B. I work in technology, making software and hardware.)