This article has a happy ending, and hope, but it starts with a problem that's pretty big and sad:

A lot of us are anxious and depressed. More than at any time in American history.

Many of us suffer silently.

Others go to doctors.

And the docs say there's something wrong with us.

"A chemical is missing in your brain," the docs say. "You need more brain juice.

"Take these pills. Prozac. Xanax. Adderall. You'll be happier than ever."

The medicine helps — but just a little.

And the side effects! You gain weight. Your sex life suffers. Your brain is foggy.

But a new book helped me think about the reasons we're sad, and what we can do about it. And it's not just more of the same kinds of drugs.

The book is called "Lost Connections: Why You're Depressed and How to Find Hope," by a British guy named Johann Hari, and it's one of those books that tells you stuff you already knew, but couldn't quite put into words.

Hari says: Our brains don't suck.

Our life sucks.

At first, this seems confusing. After all, our society is the richest, most powerful in history. Our lives, as documented on Instagram and Facebook, are full of awesome stuff and pretty vacations and smiling friends.

But the book says we're missing things. Westerners have lost our connections to what matters.

We work crummy jobs that don't matter, we live too far from friends, there's a traffic jam to get to the trailhead, and life seems hopeless.

Doctors shouldn't write scripts for Prozac, they should write prescriptions for "Better jobs, more friends, and more nature."

photo - Johann Hari - Lost Connections


Some of us, to escape bullshit lives, binge drink or snort coke or dab ourselves into oblivion.

This isn't a sin. Most people who use illegal drugs and alcohol don't have a problem. A little partying never hurt anyone.

But more Americans are addicted to drugs — especially opioids — than ever.

And a small city's worth of people dies every year.

We tend to blame the drugs — not our crappy lives. Cops crack down on doctors who prescribe too many opioids. Trump tries to make selling opioids a capital offense.

But scapegoating the drugs — and the people who use and prescribe them — is likely to make things worse.

How can we know?

Because we've been demonizing drugs and drug users for 100 years.

Another book by Johann Hari helped me think about this. It's called "Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection." It also tells you things you already knew, but couldn't quite put into words.

Before the War on Drugs started, folks used booze, opium and cocaine to deal with crappy, sad lives, same as now. It was normal. It always has been.

Back then, folks bought coke and heroin legally, from pharmacies. They partied at night or on weekends, and held jobs. They didn't have to rob and steal and break the law for their fix. It seems crazy, but an opioid or coke user in 1900 could operate just like a functional alcoholic today.

One example was Billie Holiday, the jazz singer. She was famous, but most of her life was awful. Raped at 10, a prostitute by the age of 14, spending most of her life with an abusive husband. Heroin and coke made life bearable.

But one guy in the government really hated drug users. His name was Harry Anslinger, and he decided to treat addicts not as sad people, but as criminals. Especially black and brown folks. Like Billie Holiday. After being jailed, Holiday's criminal record kept her from getting jobs. Her friends said Anslinger killed her.

Anslinger was the driving force in starting the Drug War.

You probably know the rest of the Drug War story: trillions of dollars spent, millions jailed, drug prohibition spread to every country on Earth, and we're still misusing drugs. And we have less happiness, not more.  

Photo - Johann Hari's Chasing the Scream


More interesting than re-hashing the problems of the Drug War is speculating about how it's going to end. And whether we can make ourselves happier as it fades away.

Hari profiles Portugal, where they decriminalized all drugs nearly 20 years ago. Instead of spending billions on putting users in jail, they spend the money on putting them in treatment, if they need it.

Opioid use and overdoses are way lower in Portugal than here.

So less Drug War means less misery.

But how can we get more happiness?

In his book about depression, "Lost Connections," Hari lists possible treatments. Sometimes pills, like Prozac and Adderall, help. But there are other ways to make ourselves happy. Things like:

  • Spending more time with people.

  • More time outside.

  • Finding a job you care about.

  • Partying more.

  • Meditating.

And, Hari says, if we can end the Drug War, new medicines for happiness can become available.

Psilocybin — magic mushrooms — treats depression better than the drugs that are called antidepressants. And ecstasy — MDMA, molly — lightens up other mood disorders. These are proven treatments. Hari dives deep into how mushrooms help depression.

A lot of folks are working to free up these drugs.

Researchers are close to legalizing ecstasy and mushroom therapy. And in Denver, we're voting right now on freeing up the magic mushrooms.

These are small steps toward putting a crack in the foundation of the Drug War. And letting folks choose to be happy.

There's no instant solution to unhappiness. And nothing's perfect. Ecstasy can muck up your brain. Mushrooms can spin you out. If you sell coke and heroin in pharmacies, more people will probably use them.

But the best thing about fun drugs isn't the drugs themselves, it's that most people do drugs with friends: at concerts, on camping trips, in sunlit backyards. And so things like ecstasy and mushrooms and coke can help friends and family connect to each other.

The cure for sadness is not more dugs.

And it's not less drugs.

The cure for sadness is more friends and family.

The cure for sadness is connection.

And that's the happy ending. That's the hope.

[Cover photo: Woman in Portugal, where they've decriminalized drugs, and addiction has gone down. Photo from Unsplash.]