The pathology of modern life: loneliness

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This week, I read an article on The Atlantic.com about the relationship between Facebook and loneliness, called, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  In a nutshell, the answer is no.  Not really.  If you are lonely, Facebook will make you lonely.  If you are not lonely, Facebook will probably not make you lonely.  As with almost any technology, there is nothing predestined about our particular use of it; we shape our use of technology just as much as the technology shapes us.  What was more interesting to me about the article was the insight into the long-term historical march toward loneliness which many of us in modern society have quite willingly undertaken.

As a sociologist of community, the increasing isolation of social life is nothing new.  The founding fathers of sociology, writing in the 19th century, were already concerned with the myriad effects of the rise of individualism and the decline of collective life.  There were good things about this transition from small, tight-knit communities with many overlapping groups to the anonymity of social life in cities.  We all know how claustrophobic it can feel to live in a place where you can’t really get away from those people you’d like to escape.  Cities allowed people for the first time to reinvent themselves, which meant you weren’t destined to go into the exact same line of work as your father, and your grandfather, and your great-grandfather.  Escaping those kinds of communities gave us increasing amounts of freedom, but what did we lose in the process?

The Facebook article suggests that one of the things we might lose is our health.  Lonely people are more likely to be put in a geriatric home at an earlier age than a similar, and not lonely, person.  Lonely people are less likely to exercise, and not surprisingly, more likely to be obese.   The lonely are less likely to survive a serious operation and more likely to have hormonal imbalances.  If you’re lonely, you’ll have a greater risk of depression and inflammation, but poorer memory.  Finally, lonely people sleep worse and are more likely to suffer dementia and general cognitive decline.  On all this evidence, we might conclude that if loneliness is indeed where our society is headed, we should be preparing for yet another looming health epidemic.

I have to say that both the rise of loneliness and the health costs associated with it come as little surprise to me.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that was also still a community, and I’m lucky enough now to have both found and forged a community for myself and my family.  I live in a place where making community is considerably easier than it is in many places, and I have a lifestyle that allows me to prioritize community in ways that I probably could not if I had a different kind of job, a different kind of husband, a different kind of child.

But all of that, of course, is more than just luck.  I chose a job as a college professor that is high on autonomy if relatively low on the years of schooling to salary ratio.  I like to think that I spent 6 years after finishing my college degree earning not a lot of money, but the ability to largely set my own schedule.  This is why you will find me wandering the streets of my town on a Tuesday afternoon rather than sitting in an office.

I chose to buy a house in downtown Madison, a walkable community where my neighbors are so close that we share a common wall.  I did not choose to buy a house with a great deal of distance between myself and other people.  I did not choose to live somewhere that would require huge portions of my life to be taken up with driving somewhere else in a car by myself.  In the summer, I sometimes have to think hard to remember the last time I got in my car.

I chose a husband who likes people.  He says hello to them, he introduces himself.  Of course we know the neighbors with whom we share our Madison double, but because of my husband, we know the woman across the street who owns the florist shop down the block and the couple who rent the apartment and like to sit on their stoop and let their cats wander around when the weather’s nice.  My husband knows the names of everyone who works in the local coffee shop.  When we go to a big city, I sometimes have to gently remind him not so say hello to everyone we pass on the street.

Our daughter is just as gregarious, but she’s also not particularly interested in going, going, going all the time, so we don’t spend all of our weekdays or weekends taking her to various activities.  And quite frankly, if she did suddenly want to be involved in countless activities, we would probably say no, as awful as that might make us sound as parents to many people.  When would we go to the farmer’s market, then?  Or hang out at the coffee shop after school?  Or eat at our favorite restaurant, where, literally, everyone knows our names?

As Stephen Marche, the author of the article points out, interacting with people takes time and commitment and the willingness to risk annoyance and intrusion and disappointment, and well, all the bad things that can result from human relationships.  Marche admits that he can’t even be bothered much of the time to stand in line at the grocery store next to other people, let alone have to interact with the grocery clerk; it’s all self check-out for him.  Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to comment on our neighbors’ Facebook page rather than having to talk to them in person?

I can’t speak for what’s happening in other parts of the world, but even before reading Marche’s article, I would have posited that most Americans today are lonelier than we have ever been in the course of human history.  In the United States, we have maxed out on loneliness.  I believe it is making us sick and unhappy, as well as wasteful and empty (from an environmental standpoint, many of us soothe our loneliness with stuff we buy).  You can read whole hosts of claims about the basic components of our human nature rooted in evolutionary arguments.  We are by nature greedy, or selfish, or self-interested, or altruistic, or competitive, or sexist, or racist, or violent.  I am a sociologist, so here is the only thing I believe is true about our human nature: we are social.  We need each other.  We need interaction, and interaction that involves more than just, as my friend says, glowing rectangular boxes.  Outside of those boxes, interaction is messy and unpredictable and frustrating and sometimes painful.  But I believe it also satisfies our needs in a way that, at least for now, Facebook cannot.

I believe we need a National Talk to Your Neighbor day to remind us that by and large, we are still living in communities.  Unless you are truly out in the middle of nowhere, there are in fact people around you.  And they are, in fact, people.  They are not people exactly like you.  They might not mow their lawn as often as you would like them to and they may not have voted for the same person in the last election.  But like you, they have joys and sorrow and good days and bad days, and more than likely, sometimes they feel lonely.

What if for just one hour every week–not even every day–we turned off the tv or the Wii or Facebook and found someone in our community to talk to?  It doesn’t even have to be the person who lives right next door to you; I use neighbor in the most generous sense as anyone you might bump into when you’re moving around your town or city.  It could be the person behind the counter at your local Starbucks, or that guy you see at your gym, or the parent who picks up their kid at the same time you do.

In one of my sociology courses we read about the San, a group in southern Africa who up until about the middle of the 20th century we’re still living as relatively isolated hunter-gatherers.  The San lived in the Kalahari desert, and they had a lot of room to move around.  But when you saw a picture of them sitting together, they were packed in tight, shoulder to shoulder, bum to bum.  They had all that room, but they wanted to be close to each other.  We spent most of our human history as hunter-gatherers, and thankfully cars and suburbs and Facebook have not been around long enough to change the fact that some part of us wants to be right up on each other, sitting close together, talking and sharing stories.

We can’t all become hunter-gatherers, as much as I sometimes try to convince my students that we should.  We probably can’t give up our big lawns that need to be mowed, our children who need to be driven places, or our jobs that demand we work more and more for less and less. But maybe we could talk to each other a little bit more and maybe that would stem the tide of loneliness for someone.  Or maybe we would remember what it feels like not to be lonely.  Maybe we would recognize that kind of joy, different from what you can get from Facebook or video games, or even (dare I say it) blogs.  The joy of finding your own little tight circle of people who want to be shoulder to shoulder, bum to bum.  Maybe we would rediscover the joy of being together.

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