The Curse of Modern Loneliness

(Photo: Ocusfocus/Dreamstime)
Technological innovations have made Americans lonelier than ever before, with serious consequences for both public health and our already-polarized politics.

In these politically polarized times, we are repeatedly reminded that humans are a tribal species. But our sociality goes much deeper than that. Whether our idea of a good time is a quiet evening at home or a night on the town, all of us must form and maintain rich interpersonal connections to survive and thrive. From the basic attachment of an infant to his mother to the complex global economy, social relationships are key to human success.

Not surprisingly then, a significant amount of human activity is driven by the need to belong. Consider the personal risks we will take and ambitions we will deny to preserve meaningful social bonds. Or the extent to which we will throw caution to the wind for love. Or the bond of brotherhood that inspires great courage under fire in the chaos of war.

There is, naturally, a kicker: Since social connections and love are so central to the human experience, we are vulnerable to great social suffering. Anyone who has ever grieved the death of a loved one understands all too well just how much our connections to others mean to us. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to continue talking to family members after they are gone and to even experience hallucinations of them. A study of widows found that the longer they were married, the more likely they were to have visions of their deceased spouse or feel his continued presence. We may not be the only species that mourns our dead, but with the blessing of our greater consciousness comes the burden of greater social pain. Humans have a unique awareness of past and potential future social loss and harm. Even the fear of our own mortality has a distinctly social flavor: Research reveals that one major facet of death anxiety is the fear of being separated from loved ones.

Most people understand the pain of loneliness. But few may realize just how harmful feeling alone, isolated, or excluded can be to the health of individuals and society. Loneliness is a major risk factor for depression, suicide, and cognitive decline. Feeling alone or left out also causes existential anxiety. When asked to describe the experience of being ostracized, people tend to report that it makes them feel invisible, as if they do not even exist. Research shows that even very subtle forms of ostracism, such as not having a ball tossed to you in an experimental game of catch with strangers, make life feel less meaningful. Not surprisingly then, loneliness is a strong predictor of perceiving life as devoid of purpose.

More and more, researchers and health-care professionals are viewing loneliness as a serious medical problem. It is associated with elevated blood pressure, poor sleep, and weakened immunity. Persistent loneliness has been linked to death caused by cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic conditions. When researchers combined many large data sets to examine the link between various forms of social disconnection and mortality, they found that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone increased the likelihood of death between 26 percent and 32 percent over an average seven-year period.

And loneliness often leads to more loneliness. People who feel disconnected from others will cautiously pursue opportunities to form or restore relationships, but they also respond in ways that make connecting with people difficult. For example, studies find that when people experience social exclusion, they are less empathetic, helpful, and generous, and more hostile and aggressive. Other studies similarly show that the lonelier people feel, the less socially competent they perceive themselves to be and the more likely they are to withdraw from others.

In general, when people feel disconnected or lonely, they prioritize emotional safety over social opportunity. This explains some of the counterintuitive research showing that social exclusion and loneliness often make people less sociable. This phenomenon has even been observed at the neurological level: Using fMRI, scientists have found that when people feel socially excluded, their brains display patterns of activity, or really inactivity, consistent with a desire to avoid further social pain.

The paradox of modern social life is that the more technology affords people ways to stay connected to loved ones and make new connections with others all over the globe, the more disconnected and lonely we may be becoming. Americans today, compared with those of decades past, are far less likely to know by name and interact with their neighbors, carpool or take public transportation to work, participate in civic and religious organizations, and feel that they have close friends they can confide in.

It isn’t just young people substituting electronic devices for real social interactions; Americans of all ages are retreating to their screens.

Loneliness is often perceived as a problem specific to the elderly. Older people do have unique social vulnerabilities related to retirement, declining mobility, and death of other elderly family members and peers. And as people live longer and have fewer children, the prevalence of loneliness is expected to rise. But a whole new young generation of lonely Americans is also emerging. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, who studies age-cohort trends, high-school and college students today spend less time than those of past generations engaged in in-person social interactions with friends, and they also report higher levels of loneliness.

Contrary to popular belief, decreased socializing among young Americans is not because they are more overwhelmed with homework or other responsibilities. Instead, according to Twenge, time once allocated to real human contact is now being spent with electronic devices. The years of youth that were once considered fertile ground for forming lifelong social bonds and finding a mate are increasingly being spent staring at a screen and hitting the like button, desperately hoping that others will respond in kind. It is becoming apparent that though social media can serve many positive societal functions, it is a poor substitute for a traditional social life.

To be clear, it isn’t just young people substituting electronic devices for real social interactions; Americans of all ages are retreating to their screens. And there is evidence that this phenomenon is contributing to political polarization. The General Social Survey finds that only about a third of Americans today think people can be trusted. According to the Pew Research Center, only half say they trust most or all of their neighbors, and Millennials are significantly less trusting of others than older generations. Without the social scaffolding of meaningful, close interpersonal bonds, how are people supposed to have a broader faith in humanity? On social-media sites such as Twitter, many have no qualms about dehumanizing those who have a different perspective on life. I wonder how much of the social intoxication people seek by joining online mobs is driven by a hole in the social soul. The pressing motive for so-called social-justice warriors often appears to be more social than it is justice. There are certainly true believers on the extreme far left and far right, but many individuals who appear on the surface to be motivated by an ideology may really just be seeking social acceptance and inclusion.


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