Here’s the first. We are the loneliest society in human history. There was a recent study that asked Americans, “Do you feel like you’re no longer close to anyone?” And 39% of people said that described them. “No longer close to anyone.”
In the international measurements of loneliness, Britain and the rest of Europe are just behind the US, in case anyone here is feeling smug. I spent a lot of time discussing this with the leading expert in the world on loneliness, an incredible man named professor John Cacioppo, who was at Chicago, and I thought a lot about one question his work poses to us.
Professor Cacioppo asked, “Why do we exist? Why are we here, why are we alive?”
One key reason is that our ancestors on the savannas of Africa were really good at one thing. They weren’t bigger than the animals they took down a lot of the time. They weren’t faster than the animals they took down a lot of the time, but they were much better at banding together into groups and cooperating.
This was our superpower as a species — we band together, just like bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe. And we are the first humans ever to disband our tribes. And it is making us feel awful.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. One of the heroes in my book, and in fact, in my life, is a doctor named Sam Everington. He’s a general practitioner in a poor part of East London, where I lived for many years.
And Sam was really uncomfortable, because he had loads of patients coming to him with terrible depression and anxiety. And like me, he’s not opposed to chemical antidepressants, he thinks they give some relief to some people.
But he could see two things. Firstly, his patients were depressed and anxious a lot of the time for totally understandable reasons, like loneliness.
And secondly, although the drugs were giving some relief to some people, for many people, they didn’t solve the problem. The underlying problem.
One day, Sam decided to pioneer a different approach. A woman came to his center, his medical center, called Lisa Cunningham. I got to know Lisa later.
And Lisa had been shut away in her home with crippling depression and anxiety for seven years. And when she came to Sam’s center, she was told, “Don’t worry, we’ll carry on giving you these drugs, but we’re also going to prescribe something else. We’re going to prescribe for you to come here to this center twice a week to meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people, not to talk about how miserable you are, but to figure out something meaningful you can all do together so you won’t be lonely and you won’t feel like life is pointless.”
The first time this group met, Lisa literally started vomiting with anxiety, it was so overwhelming for her. But people rubbed her back, the group started talking, they were like, “What could we do?”
These are inner-city, East London people like me, they didn’t know anything about gardening. They were like, “Why don’t we learn gardening?” There was an area behind the doctors’ offices that was just scrubland. “Why don’t we make this into a garden?” They started to take books out of the library, started to watch YouTube clips.
They started to get their fingers in the soil. They started to learn the rhythms of the seasons. There’s a lot of evidence that exposure to the natural world is a really powerful antidepressant.
But they started to do something even more important. They started to form a tribe. They started to form a group. They started to care about each other. If one of them didn’t show up, the others would go looking for them — “Are you OK?” Help them figure out what was troubling them that day.
The way Lisa put it to me, “As the garden began to bloom, we began to bloom.” This approach is called social prescribing, it’s spreading all over Europe.
And there’s a small, but growing body of evidence suggesting it can produce real and meaningful falls in depression and anxiety. And one day, I remember standing in the garden that Lisa and her once-depressed friends had built — it’s a really beautiful garden — and having this thought, it’s very much inspired by a guy called professor Hugh Mackay in Australia.
I was thinking, so often when people feel down in this culture, what we say to them — I’m sure everyone here said it, I have — we say, “You just need to be you, be yourself.”
And I’ve realized, actually, what we should say to people is, “Don’t be you. Don’t be yourself. Be us, be we. Be part of a group.”
The solution to these problems does not lie in drawing more and more on your resources as an isolated individual — that’s partly what got us in this crisis.
It lies on reconnecting with something bigger than you. And that really connects to one of the other causes of depression and anxiety that I wanted to talk to you about.
So everyone knows junk food has taken over our diets and made us physically sick. I don’t say that with any sense of superiority, I literally came to give this talk from McDonald’s. I saw all of you eating that healthy TED breakfast, I was like no way.