The Loneliness Epidemic In Our “Connected” World

Oct 27th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

British historian, Fay Bound Alberti, co-founder of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, writes that, “By the 21st century, loneliness has become ubiquitous. Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’, a condition akin to ‘leprosy’, and a ‘silent plague’ of civilization.  In 2018, the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral, internal experience. It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame. It also has social and political dimensions, shifting through time according to ideas about the self, God and the natural world.”  Alberti helps us understand the history of loneliness:

  • The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialization, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasize that the individualwas what mattered – not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.
  • In the 20th century, the new sciences of the mind – especially psychiatry and psychology – took center-stage in defining the healthy and unhealthy emotions an individual should experience. Carl Jung was the first to identify ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’ personalities (to use the original spelling) in his Psychological Types (1921).  Introversion became associated with neuroticism and loneliness, while extroversion was linked to sociability, gregariousness and self-reliance.  In the US, these ideas took on special significance as they were linked to individual qualities associated with self-improvement, independence and the “go-getting American dream.”
  • Loneliness is lamented by politicians because it is expensive, especially for an ageing population. People who are lonely are more likely to develop illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and depression, and 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely than non-lonely counterparts. But there is nothing inevitable about being old and alone – even in the UK and the US where, unlike much of Europe, there isn’t a history of inter-familial care of the aged. Loneliness and economic individualism are connected.

Senator Ben Sasse has added to our understanding of loneliness as a serious public-health issue in the United States.  Indeed, in his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, Sasse argues that Americans are richer, more informed and “connected” than ever — and unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled.  He writes that “Humans are social, relational beings.  We want and need to be in tribes.  In our time, however, all of the traditional tribes that have sustained humans for millennia are simultaneously in collapse.  Family, enduring friendship, meaningful shared work, local communities of worship—all have grown ever thinner.  We are creating thicker, more vehement tribes around our political differences, I believe, because there is a growing vacuum at the heart of our shared (or increasingly, not so shared) everyday lives.”  The result is that “loneliness is everywhere.”  Based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the majority of us are lonely, with the highest scores for younger adults, ages 18 to 22.  A UCLA 2010 study, using this scale, estimated that 35% of Americans over 45 were lonely.  Researchers, including former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, describe this as a “loneliness epidemic, liking its impact on health to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.”  Smaller-scale studies have found correlations between loneliness and isolation, and a range of health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, eating disorders, drug abuse, sleep deprivation, depression, alcoholism and anxiety.  Sasse reports that today Americans have fewer shared projects than our parents or grandparents and we belong to fewer civic groups.  “Because we change jobs more often, we have fewer lasting work friendships.  We delay marriage, have fewer children and live in larger homes, more separate from those of our neighbors.  We move from place to place for relationships, economic opportunity and better weather—and we end up with economic opportunity and better weather.”  Finally, the smart phone “has further undermined any sense of place by allowing us to mentally ‘escape’ our homes and neighborhoods.  We can instantly connect with the supposedly more exciting lives of others.  These moments add up, until we’re in an almost permanent state of dissociation, punctuated only by the most urgent demands of life, to which we tend halfheartedly.”

The columnist, George Will, writes:  Symptoms of loneliness are everywhere. Time was, Sasse notes, Americans “stocked their imaginations with the same things”: In the 1950s, frequently, 70 percent of television sets in use tuned in to “I Love Lucy.” Today, when 93 percent of Americans have access to more than 500 channels, the most-watched cable news program, “Hannity,” has about 1 percent of the U.S. population. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the average number of times Americans entertained at home declined almost 50 percent. Americans are hyperconnected but disconnected, with “fewer non-virtual friends than at any point in decades.” With the median American checking (according to a Pew survey) a smartphone every 4.3 minutes, and with nearly 40 percent of those 18 to 29 online almost every waking minute, we are “addicted to distraction” and “parched for genuine community.” Social media, those “tendrils of resentment” that Sasse calls accelerants for political anger, create a nuance-free “outrage loop” for “professional rage-peddlers.” Enemies, therefore, have the psychic value of giving life coherence.

 

What then should we do?  Repairing America’s physical infrastructure, although expensive, is conceptually simple, involving steel and concrete. America’s crumbling social infrastructure presents a daunting challenge: We do not know how to develop what Sasse wants, “new habits of mind and heart .?.?. new practices of neighborliness.” We do know that more government, which means more saturation of society with politics, is not a sufficient answer.  The solution is found in God’s Word:  As the Bible shows, God not only created humanity “in His image” (Genesis 1:26ff), He also created humanity in community.  [1]  The first institution He created was the family (see Genesis 2:18-25).  That community was to be built on the foundation of a “one-flesh union” (see 2:24-25), with children a result of that union.  That most basic of communities—the family—is to be a place of love, discipline, respect, honor and mutual responsibility (see Colossians 3 and Ephesian 5:22-6: 4).  [2]  God created the institution of the state to foster justice and thwart evil (see Romans 13:1-7).  Government is to create a society where there is order and stability and where there is respect for life and family.  [3]  Finally, God created the church, an institution the Apostle Paul compares to the human body.  Each part of the “body” is unique, of value and necessary for the functioning of the whole.  No part is insignificant.  There is perfect unity within this diversity.  Indeed, Scripture argues that the diversity within the unity of the Godhead (i.e., the Trinity) is the model for the diversity within the unity of the family and the diversity within the unity of the church.  The church is the place for the human to combat loneliness through mutual care and edification, comfort, purpose and meaning and the richness found in human relationships (see 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4 and Hebrews 13).

 

One final note:  Loneliness is a real issue within this Postmodern culture; one at near epidemic proportions.  The fundamental cure is Jesus.  There is an old hymn of the church entitled, “No one Understands Like Jesus; He’s a Friend beyond compare.”  As the Godman, Jesus knows what it is like to suffer, to be tempted, to be deserted, to be mocked, to be cursed—and to be lonely.  The key to solving the epidemic of loneliness in American Civilization is Jesus Christ.  There is no other way to cure this Postmodern epidemic.

See Fay Bound Alberti, “One is the loneliest number: The History of a Western problem,”

Aeon (12 September 2018); George Will, “We have an epidemic of loneliness. How can we fix it?” in the Washington Post (12 October 2018); Ben Sasse, “Politics Can’t Solve Our Political Problems,” in the Wall Street Journal (13-14 October 2018); and The Economist (1 September 2018), pp. 49-51.

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