Loneliness is low-key the root of so many of the mental health and social welfare issues today, yet nobody seems to know how to talk about or solve it.
Loneliness is a tough topic to tackle. It’s so widespread, yet we still know little about how or why it happens.
What’s the Deal With Loneliness?
First, here are a couple of things that we know that are probably true:
- Loneliness is widespread in the western world. In numerous surveys in the US and Europe, anywhere from 30% to 60% of the population self-reports feeling lonely and/or says that they have no meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis.What’s more surprising is that younger people often report experiencing more loneliness than older people.
- Loneliness is bad for you. Here’s a famous stat that gets bandied about claiming that loneliness shortens your lifespan as much as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. I always think it’s pretty ridiculous how they calculate these factoids, but the point remains: loneliness is unhealthy, both physically and mentally.It raises the risk of anxiety and depression. It also harms your physical health. Studies find that people who are lonely experience more heart disease, high blood pressure, and weaker immune systems.
What We Don’t Know About Loneliness
Okay, so that sounds pretty bad. But wait, there’s more! Here’s what we don’t know:
Why This Is Happening
Loneliness afflicts the western world in a way that it doesn’t appear to affect other cultures. There are many theories for why this is, but we still don’t have any solid answers.
Some point to westerners’ more individualistic culture with less emphasis on family or community. Some blame urbanization and cultural norms around owning your own house, living alone, working independently, etc. Some point to demographic changes: people are having fewer children, move from city to city more often, and spend less time with the elderly. Some point to the decline in religiosity, arguing that religion has historically been the core of human community and camaraderie.
It could be any or all of these.
How to Fix It
Again, there are a lot of theories, but we know little for sure.
Connections online and through devices seem to be a poor replacement for the emotional and psychological sustenance we get from being around others. Social media and video games are like the diet soda of our emotional well-being—it tastes like we’re hanging out with people, but there are no emotional calories. And in this case, no emotional calories is a bad thing… it’s starving us.
Loneliness is both a function of quality and quantity of social interactions. Not only do we need to see people we know often, but we also need to feel some degree of intimacy and trust with those we know.
That said, efforts are being made. In 2018, the UK appointed a “minister of loneliness.” Scandinavian countries such as Denmark are having success with “co-housing policies” where a mixture of elderly retired people and young families in need of childcare are “matched” into housing units where they share living spaces and can support each other.
But overall, this appears to be a big issue. It’s an issue to the point where the medical world has taken notice and pharmaceutical companies are even questioning if they could develop a drug to treat loneliness much in the same way there are pills to treat depression (sidenote: please fucking don’t).
But this still doesn’t get at why I think loneliness is “the low-key root” of so many social and cultural issues today…
The Dark Path From Loneliness
Psychologically speaking, we’re social animals. Most of the meaning and purpose we derive in life comes via our relationships with other individuals or from our perceived role within society, at large.
In fact, it appears that our need for human connection is so strong that much of our ability to form functional beliefs about ourselves and the world is tied to our relationships. Like a muscle, you lose empathy if you don’t use it.
And this is why, when people look at what motivates religious fanatics, conspiracy nuts, and political extremists, time and time again, what they find is an abiding loneliness.
Rejection and social isolation radicalize people. In the absence of affection and understanding, people fall back onto delusional ideas of revolution and saving the world to give themselves a sense of purpose.
Hannah Arendt, the mid-20th century philosopher and writer, was a German Jew who successfully escaped the Nazis. After the war, she spent years studying totalitarianism, the rise and fall of fascism, the communist revolutions, the horrors of Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini and Mao—and more importantly, why these leaders became so popular so quickly among their followers despite the terror they invoked.
She then produced a classic book called The Origins of Totalitarianism. The book stretches to nearly 500 pages in length and, in the end, she comes to a startling conclusion: she argued that loneliness makes people susceptible to the contempt and fragmentation that causes functional societies to collapse into extremism and violence.
I will quote her at length here and hope her progeny don’t sue me:
Loneliness, the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, the preparation of its executioners and its victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and [meaninglessness] which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of the imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality. [The reasoning] which “seizes you as in a vise” appears like a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon. It is the inner coercion whose only content is the strict avoidance of contradiction that seems to confirm a man’s identity outside the relationships with others.
Basically, once cut off from empathetic social contact to ground us, the only way we make sense of the world is by adopting radical all/nothing views.
And within these views, people begin to see a need for radical overthrow of the status quo. They begin to imagine themselves complete victims or destined saviors of society.
Keep in mind, too, that she wrote this in 1951, long before Trump and woke leftists and Twitter were thought to have ruined everything.
And perhaps this is the real threat of social media: it does not necessarily make us lonelier or angrier or more selfish or more spiteful—it simply enables the lonely and angry and selfish and spiteful to self-organize and be heard like never before.
It used to be that if you were a radical Marxist who wished for violent revolution or if you were a quack who thought Bill Gates was implanting microchips in millions of African children, you kinda had to keep that shit to yourself. You’d cause a lot of awkward silences and shifty side-glances until you’d realized you weren’t being invited to kids’ birthday parties anymore.
So… you’d shut the fuck up. And eventually, you’d start to realize, hey, most people are all right. Things are going to be fine.
There’s a forum somewhere full of people with the exact same batshit crazy you have. And what do all humans who have similar yet strange beliefs do when they get together?
That’s right, they convince themselves that they’re going to save the fucking world with their knowledge. That is, they go on a crusade. And you and I and everyone else has to listen to them, emboldened and invigorated by their new internet “friends,” as they explain to us at Thanksgiving why Jesus was a communist and the movie Armageddon was really a coded message from QAnon explaining why Bruce Willis doesn’t just run a pedophile ring, but he is secretly a sixteen-year-old boy being held prisoner against his wishes, and…
(Fuck, now I’m really going to get sued.)
Anyway, where was I?
Oh yeah! Loneliness…
Perhaps another way to look at Arendt’s argument is that we run the risk of extremists taking over when it becomes easier for radicals with fringe beliefs to mobilize and organize than the moderate majority.
Historically, this mobilization of the extremes was enabled by economic depressions and famines and (gulp) pandemics and whatnot. Today, perhaps social media and smartphones have inadvertently made that mobilization more possible.
But who knows… I could be wrong about all of this.
The fact is, we still don’t know enough to say for sure.