Is it True We Have a Loneliness Epidemic?

Do a simple Google search of the words “loneliness epidemic” and you will turn up page after page of anxious headlines, each clamoring to report on a nation of people suffering from a rampant disease of loneliness. The statistics sound positively alarming — perhaps why there has been such a staggering proliferation of such titles making their rounds online. The purported causes of this situation are numerous: they run the gamut from “cancerous” social media, the general sweep of the digital revolution, upticks in the consumption of prescription drugs, less rooted communities and the swelling of flight to urban areas, to name a few. You need only shuffle through the abundance of studies on this topic to realize that the “loneliness epidemic” is not necessarily a fear-mongering phenomenon. Some have even went so far as to run with the label of “public health crisis” with the attached reasoning that loneliness begets tangible declines in mortality, compromises one’s immune system, and raises the risk of depression (which is already a concerning upward trend being witnessed).

No doubt there is some kind of “fraying of the social fabric” underway — and granted, this is a lament that has deceivingly always been present to some degree. But in our current situation, people are outrightly confessing to it — lending credibility to this societal suspicion and solidifying a cold, unmovable truth about the state of American society presently. Data doesn’t bend, thus, worries about loneliness are not unfounded and should not be swiped away as mere hand-wringing.

All this said, I am skeptical if there is not a deeper reality actually camouflaging itself as loneliness. That there is such unanimous consensus for the loneliness-theory to explain the crux of our societal discomfort appears mildly suspicious to me. Loneliness may be a conveniently available target for our unease, but perhaps we are starving for meaning more than anything. And here’s another speculation: we’ve forgotten how to properly sit still with our own selves and this in turn, diminishes our capacity to “sit still” with other people. We are “lonely”, we say, but perhaps there is much more that we are not saying and that we simply don’t have the capacity to voice!

Let’s talk about the ways in which modern society has been remolded and cracked in a few spots: To begin with, an explosion of tech has radically reshaped our daily experience. One of the greatest ironies of the digital revolution is how despite all the hyper-connection, people report greater feelings of isolation. Was this not the siren call and the persuasive sell of social media in its younger days? For all its derision for slowly eliminating face-to-face contact, social media’s salvation was that it would indeed “connect” people.

We’ve run the experiment for long enough and suffice to say, the majority of people likely would not wholeheartedly agree with this rosy, idealist outlook on things. Tellingly, there is something inadequate about digital life honestly supplying a sense of genuine community. Social media is mostly about display — not connection. It is a museum wherein one traipses through a profusion of viewing material — and it’s all a bit lifeless and one-sided. It’s a stunted prescription for human connection if we’ve ever found one. If we are honest with ourselves, social media is less of a two-way interchange that would generally typify “connection” and more like one-way glass — a viewing spectacle that on some level, does not bond but rather, alienates.

The general ubiquity of smartphones and all-pervasive tech has made it so that silence and stillness are something of a foreign commodity. What do people do, after all, in the multiplicity of daily moments wherein they are not occupied? Their neck cranes down to gaze into the seemingly never-ending treasure trove of their phones. All too many of us are guilty of this addicting compulsion. Even in private, solitary moments, the device beckons just so that we do not have to endure an interval of truly “empty” time. You may notice — if you’re vigilant about this in your own life and study your own patterns — how deathly afraid you might be of the stillness — of the quietly humming plane of regular life that you might realize with surprise, you have grown wildly, dangerously unaccustomed to.

I do think that the tech implosion and the proliferation of the Internet and all of its byproducts (while enormously beneficial) did end up having the effect of giving us access to all the candy in the candy store. So of course we want the endless pool of streaming video, commentary, social media, and images, etc. that the Internet and its attendant devices offer. The net effect of this beguiling assortment of “distractions” (or if we want to be less damning — “occupants,”) has indeed been to wither away those moments in which we actually spend time with ourselves. Perhaps we don’t know how to be alone and we are starved of communication with our own selves. Certainly everyone has different appetites for, and capacities for, introspection, but needless to say, companionship with one’s own self is a universal need.

Which makes me wonder: People are bemoaning their own loneliness and are suspecting that their loneliness is of the classic sort that derives from a lack of togetherness with other people (which I don’t doubt is definitely partly true) but might part of the problem be that people are alienated from themselves? Surely if there is as much of a pressing issue in society today of people confessing to feeling painfully detached from their fellow human beings, might we be experiencing this problem within the microcosm of our own psychologies? After all, your ability to experience “intimacy” with your own self has a pretty strong correlation to your ability to experience intimacy with other people.

Shifting gears a bit: on the level of our wider culture, human beings increasingly appear to doubt their own meaningfulness and their own utility. Jobs are routinely shuffled and discarded in the sped-up technological economy, leaving people to grapple with erased fragments of themselves, re-frame their identities, collect their bearings and attempt to begin anew.

The strange, swallowing world of AI edges closer and closer each year, bequeathing a sort of unspoken anxiety about the barriers between robotics and humans, and even about the tasks that humankind will even be needed anymore to do! AI for many people is an abstract concept, sure, but it does drape a hushed, tacit unsettlement onto society at large that is felt by nearly everyone even lightly familiar with its developments. This has always been the danger of futurism: human obsoletism. A basic human reality feels appropriate to mention here: People need to feel needed and currently, this idea is seriously threatened.

Moreover, populist political movements in the Western world implicitly express angst at the voices of the people being flattened and therefore, not considered meaningful or useful. A merciless economic environment prompts many to uproot frequently, thus diminishing the quantity of strong community roots. One could even draw a parallel between the intensified environment of political partisanship and the loneliness epidemic symptomatic of a reportedly atomized society. The common element is the general detachment — the alienation.

More people than ever before are dying from drug overdoses, so despaired about life that they went ahead and extinguished it. What keeps the flame of life burning, after all? Believing that one matters. You can say that one becomes addicted and that’s all there is to it, but the widespread hopelessness that drives people is dangerously telling. You end up burning the candle down to the very end when one lacks confidence in their own utility (whether that is to their family, relationships, community, or the wider world) and finds themselves empty-handed of meaning — a conviction that life is significant and that there are ideals worth striving towards and things that could potentially lighten our darkest days.

There’s some serious implications about how uncannily a societal lament of isolation fits into the other puzzle pieces — most notably, trends that people are more unhappy and less fulfilled. So it’s not so much a dearth of topographical companionship that is culpable for all the blame here. It’s likely a deeper sense of having been disconnected from meaning, for one thing. And so people shuffle around, their eyes a bit glazed-over and they know they are hungry for something but maybe they cannot exactly say what. And they’re restless and dissatisfied and the way they interpret all these feelings is “I feel detached” — and it’s no wonder! If your life lacks meaning, then you might not have much of an existential foundation and your “philosophical” roots might be very weak or almost nonexistent.

And if you’re feeling ineffectual and experience a creeping sense of worthlessness in the sphere of everyday life (which is not entirely your own fault considering the perfect storm of societal conditions mentioned earlier) then you might not feel compelled to transcend your difficulties and you might not have the strength to hope for a better future or a different reality. And in that case, you don’t have many branches extending up and outward, either. And that’s not a way to live. And if people don’t know what to do about this, find the discomfort too unbearable, or otherwise cannot articulate what is exactly wrong, then not only will they fall prey to the distraction-addled daily experience that is so ubiquitously available nowadays, but they might even start to isolate themselves even more.

I do think that claims about a loneliness epidemic are legitimate. But I also think that it’s a two-pronged issue — forking into both the realm of society and the realm of the individual. I would suppose that people are suffering from a shortage of human contact but the question we are not asking ourselves about this purveyed reality is this: why we are doing it to ourselves? Because, if we are lonely ourselves and our fellow humans are in the same predicament, why are we all in that same spot? Doesn’t that reveal that there’s something remiss on the level of the individual?

Above all else, I would speculate that loneliness as a phenomenon is alienation from the things that matter. Being severed from significance, feeling as if your roots of community have been hacked away, and as if the branches of hope for a richly meaningful future have been pruned, and furthermore, being unable to sit still with your own Self through all of this will indeed sow the seeds of loneliness in a nation of people variously afflicted by all these things. Loneliness is a complex national problem in the Western world — extending deeper and wider than many of us would initially expect.

The social infrastructure is showing some serious wear-and-tear that is even cropping up in concrete data and I’ll admit to skepticism that this can all really be chalked up to a dearth of companionship or if the problem doesn’t travel deeper than just society’s obvious fragmentation — into our own psychologies and our own philosophies.

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Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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