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.

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.

Our Past is in Our Present

Dr. Matthew Brensilver, a teacher at MARC UCLA, focuses on the relationship between mindfulness and mental health.  In his guided meditation on The Present is Made of Our Past, he explores the connection between the present and the past.  When we are present, we are not absorbed by the past or anxiously anticipating the future.  Matthew points out, however, that “in some sense, the present is composed of nothing but the past”.  This is a challenging idea for those of us who have been exposed to the unerring emphasis on being present.

Expressing the past in the present

In this present moment, you are giving expression to everything you experienced in the past – the habits you developed over time, the conditioning you experienced in different aspects of your life and the momentum (in career, life & relationships) that you have achieved.  So, the present is composed of these many elements.  In Matthew’s perspective, the present can be viewed as “making peace with the past” – combining gratitude with loving-kindness.

The past is present through your memories (not only of events or situations but also of the emotions involved at the time).  It is also present in what Matthew describes as “habit energies” – your habituated way of doing things, of relating and responding.  The past is present in your thoughts and feelings that arise from different stimuli – patterned as they are on previous experiences, responses and outcomes for yourself and others.

Your habits can be good for you or harmful.  Mindfulness enables you to appreciate your good habits and the benefits that accrue to you and others when you act out these habits.  Mindfulness also makes you aware of unhealthy habits that condition you to respond in ways that have a deleterious effect on you and others.  You become more aware of the existence of these habits, their origins, the strength of their hold on you and their harmful effects. Over time, your mindfulness practice can release you from the hold of these habits and assist you to transform yourself.  For example, you can develop the ability of reflective listening where before you constantly interrupted others and failed to actively listen to what they had to say.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better integrate our past with our present, understand the influences shaping our responses, improve our self-regulation and bring an enlightened sense of gratitude to others and loving-kindness to ourselves and our everyday experience.

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Image – Noosa, Queensland, 18 May 2019 (7.45 am)

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.

The Pillars of a Meaningful Life

In the previous post, I discussed how making meaning in our daily lives contributes to well-being. I also drew on what Dr. Paul Wong stated in terms of the need to align our lives with what we consider to be meaningful – in other words, to achieve congruence. Paul is the author of the book , The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications. Through his research, writings and presentations, he has developed the concept of the pillars of a meaningful life. He has identified seven of these pillars which I will discuss below.

The seven pillars of a meaningful life

  1. Believing that human life is inherently meaningful – this is foundational, because once you acknowledge that your life has meaning, you can pursue the realisation of meaning in your own life. You can begin to value your work, be grateful for the many things that you have and can do and explore meaningful relationships with people who are like-minded. This can lead to life-time friendships and collaboration. This fundamental belief also enables you to accept that suffering and pain are part of human existence and have a meaning in your life.
  2. A profound self-awareness – understanding at a deep level who you are and where you fit into the greater scheme of things. This understanding and acceptance provides the basis for recognising your potential for contributing positively to significant others in your life and those you interact with on an given day. This means avoiding delusion and being open to your potential.
  3. Exploring what is unique about your passion and mission – discovering your unique purpose. This involves capturing what inspires and energises you and becoming conscious of the challenges and responsibilities that flow from your personal pool of knowledge, skills and experiences.
  4. Pursuing your best self so that you realise your potential – overcoming the negative thoughts and barriers that block your potential. If you are not consciously trying to improve yourself, you can find that you are going backwards. Even small steps towards fulfilling your potential will bring you closer to your best self. This is a life-long journey but leads to a sense of well-being when you have achieved a real breakthrough. It is important to approach this self-realisation task non-judgmentally, avoiding “beating up on yourself” for not progressing as fast as you “should”.
  5. Self-transcendence – contributing to something that is bigger than yourself and that will outlast you. Viktor Frankl suggests that self-transcendence is central to your well-being as it is part of your “spiritual nature”. This involves moving beyond self-centredness and self-absorption to being altruistic and compassionate – ultimately being other-centred, whether the other person is a neighbour, friend or casual contact. Happiness and well-being lie at the heart of self-transcendence.
  6. Relating well to the people who are closest to you – your life partner, your children and closest friends. This “intimacy” is a rich source of happiness and well-being. If you are in constant conflict in this arena, you need to explore the dynamics of the situation and your contribution to the conflict. Relating well entails reflective listening, being thoughtful and aware of others’ needs, and “going out of your way” to help the other person when they are not coping, are ill or saddened by some occurrence in their life.
  7. Having a sense of personal fulfillment when your life is productive – in line with human connectedness. This means, in part, having a sense that you are using the surplus in your life to contribute to the well-being of others. It also means using your knowledge, skills and experience to be a productive and positive contributor to your work team and your organisation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and small acts of gratitude, we can enjoy happiness and well-being, develop rich relationships and realise our potential through positive contributions to our work team and our community.

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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.

Grow Mindfulness through Reflective Listening

Have you ever been in a “conversation” where the other person was obviously not listening?

They may have been distracted by their own thoughts, looking at their smart phone or watching things going on elsewhere.  While you are talking they could be keying on their computer, shuffling papers or doodling.  One cue that they are not listening is the lack of listening non-verbals, e.g. eye contact, facing you, conversation encouragers such as a nod or smile.

The non-listener will interrupt, talk over you, try to solve your problem before they know what it is and direct the conversation to their own issue or story.

Of course, each of us engages in one or more of these behaviours at one time or another.  The net result of the failure to listen is that the speaker becomes frustrated, annoyed and even aggressive in tone or posture.

When you really listen, you give the speaker the gift of affirmation – you affirm their existence, their worth and that you value them enough to pay attention to them (rather than to your own needs).

However, to listen reflectively you need to be present to the other person – to be mindful.  You can reflect what the speaker is saying through summarising, paraphrasing and checking for understanding.

Reflective listening requires focused attention – a key feature of mindfulness.  It is really a two-way street.  The more you listen and focus on someone talking, the more mindful you become; the more you develop the habit of mindfulness, the more you are able to listen reflectively.

You have to learn to use your ears more and your mouth less so you can focus on the other person and what they are saying.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com.