The Shades of Loneliness

As I spent the past year traveling through America, I’ve listened to countless politicians, urban planners, and pundits tell me about the resurgence of stronger social relationships in their communities.

But every time I trek through a new city, big or small, I witness a much different reality. When I strolled through empty neighborhoods in Detroit, mentally counted the number of abandoned community centers in the Bay Area, chatted with the last holdovers in small rundown towns like Rochester, or listened to a depressed local policy-maker bemoan the lack of funding to help the socially marginalized it’s hard to imagine today’s world is the paragon of social cohesion.

From every angle, the state of relationships are in crises. As I completed my 500th interview of 2018 this week, the one universal trait I’ve noticed, regardless of coast, class, race, or ideology, is that Americans are incredibly lonely.

This observation is by no means entirely anecdotal. Using one of the best tools for measuring isolation — the UCLA loneliness scale, researchers from Cigna found that nearly 50 percent of Americans feel lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s. The same study found most individuals eat most of their meals and watch television in solitude. Very few professed to have a close companion “who know them well” and for those who do, most rarely engage with a close pal. The last few decades saw the number of those with a close confidante in their lives plunge. Even more alarming, a plurality of Millennials and Generation X’ers feel bereft of community and think they always will be.

In his time as a physician, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

Without question, loneliness hangs over our culture like a thick San Francisco fog.

The Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin believes there are seven types of loneliness. But, in my mind, the two forms of isolation plaguing this country today can be sliced into two groups: the young who lack adequate social connections and those who forged through life and now feel abandoned by society.

For the former demographic, I would urge them to be resilient and not reclusive; that the sorrow and isolation an adolescent might feel permeating through your mind is temporary, and that there is a debate team, an after work bowling club, worthwhile profession, and/or spiritual organization that will provide you beautiful and healthy human connections.

To the young men (and few women) in tech hubs like Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Denver who told me how socially stranded they felt, I would encourage them to abandon their social media time (which is inflating your gloomy detachment) and go out into the real world. Put yourself out there and be productively uncomfortable. You will find that as you engage with others there are more people that are different like you than from you. Though you may feel misunderstood by your current surroundings, you are loved, and your presence provides a sense of joy for more people than you know. It will only be a matter of time before you realize this.

It is, however, the latter group that deeply concerns me. For the depths of their isolation carries hazardous weight that affects not just the individual but the entire social order.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar concludes that human societies exist on three levels: the clan (family and friends), the village (your local community), and your tribe (your larger group).

And for many, (especially men in their late 50’s and beyond) they have lost connections on all three echelons described by Mr. Dunbar. There are so many who once felt a sense of purpose via their region, profession, and/or family, and due to self-inflicted wounds or external forces have largely given up hope on a better future. Whose social ecosystems have evaporated and now lack any avenue to share any part of their life with someone. Who feel that there has been an unfair imbalance between effort and reward.

In New Orleans, I met so many people who said the last time they gathered with close family and friends was before Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Since then, many quipped that due to close comrades leaving or dying, large scale gatherings have become a thing of the past. A long-entrenched communal culture of barbecuing, watching Saints games together, and discussing whether their kids should go to Tulane or LSU, along with the emotional satisfaction that comes with all these occasions, has withered away.

When I sat down for brunch in the heart of Philadelphia in March, I noticed my waitress shirt boldly stated, “I miss the old Philadelphia.”

When I asked her what she missed about old Philly, she promptly replied, “I’ve lived here for forty years. This city was always tough to live in, but at least I had people who helped me and shared with me their struggles and battles. People and jobs left. The city doesn’t give a shit and neither do the newcomers. Fuck them. I serve hundreds of customers each day, I’ve worn this shirt for the past two years, and you’re the only one who’s ever asked me about it.”

In his insightful book about depression and desolation, Lost Connections, journalist Johann Hari discovers that, “Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contract. You eventually become afraid of the very thing you need most and eventually develop a warped view of communal ties.”

In short, unnoticed loneliness and seclusion are often are at the root of our biggest societal tribulations. As Mr. Hari collected more personal stories for his book, he checked back months later with his sources and found countless individuals cognitive isolation manifested into something far more dangerous — many became perpetrators of domestic abuse, gun violence, and murder.

The National Safety Council reported that 70 percent of US employers have dealt with workers who are over-using prescription drugs to escape the pain stemming from mental seclusion. Moreover, many experts believe that an increased sense of desolation has amplified the number of suicides in America. In the instances when people who are lonely pick a community, they often choose a unhealthy tribalistic group that divides and is often exploited by politicians and marketers.

The interaction that will forever be burned into my memory was my 500th interview — a conversation with a 55-year-old farmer, and his spouse, near Columbus, Ohio whose kindness, hospitality, and odd in-depth knowledge and interest in the Indian farming system blew me away. Over dinner, while he went to grab another beer, his wife confided in me that his understanding of South Asian based agricultural began when she discovered her husband googled, “ways to commit suicide but have family collect life insurance.”*

The good news is the solutions to helping the millions who feel like the Philadelphia waitress, those hordes of tech Millennials, and the rural farmer by no means elude us as a society.

They start by asking basic questions: how do we socialize a younger generation who for, a large part of their adolescent, failed to properly formulate social ties? What is the cost of a corporate ladder that has become so emotionally quarantined to climb? What do we do with the group who have felt beaten down by the world and feel they are now on the outside looking in? How do we re-build a culture of community? Can we re-stitch the fabric of a society of strong bonds for everyone and not just the privileged?

Further, there’s an obvious need to emphasize constructing social bonds as well as building more avenues for individuals to create connections in person filled with more meaning, intimacy, and love. Yet, at the same time, also understand bouts of personal solitude are not always so dire.

Rebuilding social trust so individuals feel they have the ability to emotionally tether themselves to other humans will take time. There are many who haven’t found their place in society, and even more who feel they no longer have a place in it. I’m equally empathetic for both cohorts, because as the sagacious Toni Morrison once scribed, “Where there is pain, there are no words. All pain is the same.”

The more I study the topic of loneliness and interact with those who feel on an island, the more I want to aid those who feel alone. As I look around and see what attention this issue is now receiving, it brings me some solace that when it comes to helping others create meaningful relationships, I know I am not alone.

*(Indian farmers, down on their luck, often commit suicide for their family to receive life insurance payments).

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