How do you define your values? What are the things that guide how you behave on a day to day basis, how you interact with friends and family and the wider world?
That was the question I pulled from my pack of cards today, when I decided it had been a while since I blogged and I needed to stop thinking about what to write and just get on and do it.
It was an interesting one to pull out as I’ve just finished listening to Lost Connections by Johann Hari, an amazing book all about the true causes of depression and anxiety and how we can go about fixing them.
I came of age as part of the generation embracing the idea of ‘brain chemistry’ as the one stop, magical explanation to depression. Although not depressed myself, I was well versed in the idea that depression is simply down to low serotonin levels, nothing you can do about it, nothing society or the government needs to feel responsible for, just plain old chemistry.
The cure? Antidepressants that balance the chemicals, and fix our brains. Problem solved. Except the longer we go on taking them, the clearer it becomes that actually no, the problem is not solved. If depression and anxiety was all about serotonin, if antidepressants work, why are so many people still struggling?
The sad truth is that most people taking antidepressants stay depressed, and yet the world is, of course, led more by big pharma than actual real life people, and admitting that the issues are in the way we live and the way our society is structured makes it a bigger problem than anyone in charge wants to face.
In Lost Connections Hari tries to answer this question of what is really causing depression, first looking at all the evidence, or lack of it, backing up the brain chemistry theory, and then looking at other research to discover what the true causes might be. One of them is that we have lost touch with meaningful values.
What does this mean exactly?
Well, it’s essentially materialism. We’ve transferred so much of our sense of self worth onto stuff that we’ve lost sight of what really matters to us. We are judged and we judge ourselves by how much we earn, the size of our house, the number of Instagram followers we have, the labels on our clothes, and it’s making us sad. We’re fed the idea that fame or fortune or buying things is what’s going to make us happy – even in the self care world it essentially comes down to scented candles – to the point that we’ve forgotten what’s really important.
Hari writes about studies that show that when groups are given the time and the space to question their pursuit of these more materialistic values, to think about how they make them feel, and to change their focus, they become less depressed. Newsflash – buying things, owning things, doesn’t make you happy. We all probably know that in theory, deep down, and yet few of us seek to change.
One of the most important values to me is honesty. I just can’t seem to lie, even when it might be a good idea, like a small child asking you if you think their painting is good. I feel compelled to be truthful and although that doesn’t always comes easily, it’s something that’s important to me. The flip side of this is that I assume everyone else is the same, and I am easily taken in by liars, but I’d rather be that way round. I have always said to previous partners that I can deal with pretty much anything that want to share with me, as long as it’s the truth.
I think with honesty comes justice. I have always wanted things to feel fair and equal, and I don’t cheat to get ahead. If you’re going to play me at Monopoly and help yourself to money when you think no one’s looking then you are not my kind of person.
Kindness, patience and compassion are important to me and something I value highly in other people. Balance is another one – having balance in my life between the things I want to do and the things that perhaps I know I need to do. Working for myself is one key way that I achieve this, as it allows me freedom and flexibility with my own time and to spend time with others.
I want to say courage, but that makes me think of lions or scuba diving. I think perhaps what I mean is more about having an open heart and an open mind and not being afraid to try new things, to have a go with the knowledge that you could fail. I have done all kinds of things in my life that I might not have tried if I had thought about it too much – I prefer to go for it, to say yes, and think about it later. (If at all.)
Thinking back to Hari’s theory that our lost connection with meaningful values contributes to depression, I am sure he is right. I know that when any of these values feel out of line for me, when I feel like I’m not in an honest relationship for example, or I’m working too much and don’t have enough time for myself and the people I love, that has a direct impact on my emotional wellbeing.
How can it not be true that feeling secure in what’s important to us and working our lives around that is going to make us happier?
What are your most important values? I’d love to know what matters to you.