Turning From Envy to Valuing the Success of Others

Johann Hari, in his  book Lost Connections, discusses various ways to achieve reconnection to other people, to meaningful work and to meaningful values.  In looking at ways to reconnect with others he maintains that the challenge is to overcome self-addiction (what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “myself as the center of the universe”), and transition to valuing the success of others (what Johann calls “sympathetic joy”).  To illustrate this transition, he tells the story of his friend Rachel who was consumed by envy – a divisive emotion that is socially constructed.

Envy – a socially constructed emotion

Rachel was able to describe how she experienced disappointment, sadness and depression when others succeeded at the expense of her own self-evaluation.  She explained that she had become driven by society’s values that encouraged comparison, competition and materialistic values – a society that was based on the assumption that if others achieved power or success there was less to go around for herself (a “zero-sum” perspective).

She lacked happiness and joy in her life because she always came up lacking when comparing herself with others – whether the basis of comparison was financial or professional success, the quality of her home or car or her level of visibility/perceived credentials.  This led increasingly to disconnection from others, in part because she could not express appreciation for their achievements and distanced herself to reduce her envy.

In Johann’s book, Rachel describes how she was able to turn from envy to valuing the success of others – how she was able to progressively experience and express “sympathetic joy”.

Developing sympathetic joy through loving-kindness meditation

Rachel explains how she turned to loving-kindness meditation as a pathway to overcome the pressure of society’s expectations and her socially constructed envy.  Overcoming addiction to self was a slow journey, but as she began to express positive emotions towards others when they “succeeded”, she was able to release the stranglehold of society’s expectations embed in her sense of self.

There are various forms of loving-kindness meditation and the form Rachel described entailed the following steps:

  • You picture yourself being successful in some arena of activity and allow the resultant joy to flow through you – experiencing it holistically in mind, body and emotion
  • You then visualise someone you love succeeding in some endeavour, and again open yourself fully to the resultant joy
  • You progressively focus on success and joy in relation to someone you don’t know well or are not close to, then someone you dislike and lastly someone for whom you have a strong dislike.

This loving-kindness meditation – expressing happiness for the success of others – eventually erodes envy and replaces it with appreciation, valuing others and experiencing real joy (that is no longer solely dependent on your own success but also embraces the success of others).

Reflection

We can move from envy to sympathetic joy as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation and reflection.  As the neuroscientists continually reminds us, “we become what we focus on” – if we focus on valuing the success of others (in whatever arena) we will experience joy, if we continue to envy the success of others, we will become consumed by envy and resentment and become disconnected from others.  Sympathetic joy is a pathway to personal happiness, whereas envy leads to sadness, depression and despair because our self-evaluation is based on distorted comparison with others.

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Image by Eric Michelat from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

What Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with others. 

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Depression, Loneliness and the Loss of Connection to Other People

In my previous post, I discussed the loss of connection to meaningful work as one social factor impacting the rise of depression and anxiety.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, found through his research, and that of his colleagues, that another major contributor to depression is the growing disconnection from other people being experienced in Western societies today.  This disconnection from others has led to an epidemic of loneliness in Britain, America and Australia.  The U.K. Government, in recognition of this growing social problem, has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Social change and the rise of loneliness

Robert Putnam, through research over more than 25 years covering almost 500,00 interviewees, provided evidence that people are becoming increasing disconnected from family, social groups, the wider community and neighbours.  The title of his landmark book incorporating this social research, Bowling Alone, captures the essence of his findings – people are now bowling on their own in a dedicated lane instead of bowling in a group as was the practice previously.  The level of volunteering has dropped dramatically as has active participation in what Robert terms “democratic structures”.

Johann suggests that this increasing tendency to “go it alone” is compounded by the often-repeated advice that change begins with you and that no one can help you but yourself – you have to fix yourself unaided.  He points out that this advice is contrary to the history of humanity which evidences our tribal nature and co-dependence.  Our forebears had to cooperate to survive – going it alone led to extinction.

The physical health costs of loneliness

Johann draws on the results of a range of research projects to demonstrate that loneliness dramatically increases the risk of catching infection and of dying from a serious health problem such as heart attack or cancer (risks like those of a person who is obese). The research highlights the fact that loneliness leads to an increased heart rate and production of stress-related cortisol (similar to what happens when a person is attacked physically).

The link between loneliness and depression

In his Lost Connections book, Johann draws heavily on the extensive research conducted by John Cacioppo into the link between depression and loneliness and the essential nature of the experience of loneliness.  John established that loneliness preceded the emergence of depressive symptoms in one of his many studies.  In another study he found that people who revisited a period of intense loneliness became “radically more depressed”, whereas people who recaptured a period of real connection to another person became “radically less depressed”.

These findings led John to ask the question, “What is loneliness?”  He established several key points through this basic inquiry:

  • loneliness is not the same as “being alone” – you can be alone and live alone and not feel lonely or depressed
  • you can feel lonely in a crowded place or even within your own family – the presence alone of others does not ward off a sense of loneliness
  • loneliness arises in the absence of connection with someone or a group of people with whom you can readily share experiences of joy or distress.

John argues that people need a “two-way” relationship where things that matter are shared for mutual benefit – the sharing needs to be “meaningful” for both people. He suggests that this element of exchange and mutual assistance is the “missing ingredient” needed to overcome loneliness.

Sarah Silverman (comedian, actor, singer and writer) in conversation with Amanda De Cadenet described her own experience of depression as “desperately homesick but home”. Being at home physically does not guarantee protection against depression – from feeling sad, anxious and negative; experiencing low self-esteem; and being fearful that people will dislike you. Johann suggests that Sarah’s allusion to “homesickness at home” highlights the fact that our conception of “home” has “shrivelled” from our sense of community as “home” to the four walls of our house.

The “snowball effect” of loneliness

Sarah, in her interview, also makes the point that self-deprecation, which is the hallmark of a lot of stand-up comedy, has its downside in that it leads to actual self-deprecation and depression, which becomes self-obsessive, shutting out other people. She argues that “if you can be okay with yourself, you can have a lot more room to have other people in your life”. If you feel lonely and depressed you will have low self-esteem and avoid social contact – leading to a “snowball effect” compounding your loneliness.

Johann discusses the “snowball effect” of loneliness in terms of both perception of threat and accelerated response time to potential threat. People who are lonely tend to exhibit “micro-awakenings”, a trait common amongst people who are anxious because they don’t feel protected when asleep. This state of “hypervigilance” leads to the perception of threat even when it does not exist (or experience of a slight when none is intended). The research quoted by Johann shows too that people who are experiencing loneliness tend to react twice as quickly to perceived threat as those who are not lonely.

Breaking out of loneliness

Johann argues that people experiencing loneliness are forever scanning their environment for threats because they do not feel as if anyone is looking after them – they perceive that no one “has their back”. He maintains that what they need is more love and kindness together with reassurance.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, who has extensively researched addiction to gaming and the internet, maintains that these addictions are often an attempt to escape from the sense of loneliness. She argues that what is needed is “connection with one another in a safe, caring way” – a face-to-face connection not a remote, superficial interaction mediated by a screen.

In a brief video about overcoming isolation, John Cacioppo explains how people have successfully overcome extreme isolation and loneliness. He maintains that breaking out of loneliness requires a change in cognition (the way we think about ourselves and others) as well as approaching others “in a way that is positive, in a way that is engaging and that is mutually enjoyable”.

How mindfulness can help to overcome loneliness and depression

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that meditation can assist us to overcome feelings of hurt and resentment. It can help us to find ways of forgiving ourselves and others. Through mindfulness practices, we can achieve calm, clarity and self-regulation (of our thoughts, emotions and actions).

Mindfulness can help us savour what we have – our work, our children, our friendships and the present moment. It can help us to slow down and express genuine gratitude which generates positive energy and builds relationships. Overall, mindfulness can help us to cultivate awareness of others, overcome self-absorption and engage in “compassion in action“. As we grow in mindfulness, we can move beyond loneliness and depression, learn to value ourselves, appreciate the present moment and reach out to others through reflective listening and compassionate action.

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Image by dima_goroziya from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.