Is there a Loneliness Epidemic?

A lot of my mental gymnastics over the past few months has been self-centered around accepting reality and improving my personal health (note that accepting reality I am viewing as a tool to improving my personal health).

A quote that has really stuck with me—one that I originally stumbled upon years ago but revisited just a few weeks ago comes from the year 1600.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”

– French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the year 1600

The quote amazes me both for its content (more to this in a second) and also the fact that it was first published over 400 years ago.

Regarding the latter, it’s funny (perhaps not even the right word—astonishing!) how even in the year 1600—a world with no smartphones, no internet, no air travel—mankind struggled with loneliness. Can you try, for a moment, to try to relate to a world with no ~modern technology? What did that world look like? What did that world feel like? What did it smell like? How did it operate?

> Where did you go to escape loneliness?

The content is also fascinating. Have you ever tried to sit alone in a room? How quiet can you be? Not just externally, audibly, but how quiet can your mind be? How long can you go? Where does your mind go? How quickly does it start racing? Do you get anxious? Do you feel bad? Do you crave stimulation? Do you crave attention? What do you want?

> WHAT DO YOU WANT? is an easy to think about but also extremely hard to answer question.

(Aside, considering asking this question in an interview setting. What does the other person want? What do you really want? Ask it, and stare. Let there be space. Let the other person wade through the question. What do they want? In life? In general? In this meeting? They won’t know. They will have to process. They will have to think. It’s a good question)

So we admit most men (and women) cannot sit in a room alone for all too long. Maybe it’s 4 hours. Maybe it’s 4 minutes. But it’s not 4 years. And it’s not 4 months. It’s not really 4 weeks or 4 days. It’s something less most likely for most people before they start to go ~crazy because they crave a sort of ATTENTION that frees them from the burden of being alone.

The burden of being alone is a weird notion. Normally burdens are supposed to be these external things. The burden of carrying others weight around. The burden of oppression from the world.

But what if we—just our existence—is the burden that we must own when we are alone. The burden of carrying our BIG POWERFUL BRAINS AROUND is non-zero.

When we carry around the brain, and have to really FEEL THAT BURDEN, perhaps that is when we trap ourselves in our lonely spirits. That is when we feel the weight.

So back to loneliness—maybe rephrased as the act of being alone—how do we cope with that?

Do we cope with it by distracting ourselves or confronting the message or what? Where does our head go? How long can we afford to distract ourselves?

And at a more macro level, is this a problem? Does this problem lead to other problems?

The question I really center on (both on a personal level but also considering more macro) is whether this “loneliness battle” is increasing or decreasing?

Is it a constant of humanity—something CORE TO OUR SPECIES—or is it something our environment can impact?

My gut speaks to me and says…umm…SURELY your environment can play a role in how you feel. SURELY living in certain versions of the world surrounded by certain types of people would make you feel certain types of ways. And in the contrary, SURELY there are variations of this where different environments could make you feel different types of way.

But then I question this hypothesis and go down an adjacent line of questioning. Perhaps our personalities are just given to us when we are born? Perhaps we are who we are AGNOSTIC to the world around us?

Or perhaps it is something in between.

So to come back to the original premise—is this loneliness thing increasing? Are we facing a loneliness epidemic? Do more people feel lonely / [inject any word for loneliness] or is this a thing that has always been a thing?

You would THINK that technology like the INTERNET _could_ (not say has, more on that in a second) CONNECT PEOPLE such that they feel less lonely. This would assume a few things:

  • Connecting with other people makes us feel less lonely (it’s not clear the answer to this is yes in a strict manner. What I mean by that is very often when you connect with others you actually realize how different you are and thus feel isolate and therefore alone. But you can also acknowledge that often when connecting with others—sharing struggles, sharing interests, etc.—you feel _together_.
  • We use the internet in such a way that prioritizes connection with others (i.e. bringing people together rather than tearing them apart). There’s a lot that could be written on this topic. You could silver bullet it by calling the internet (perhaps adequately) a tool that can be used by the user in a variety of ways. Some of those ways include genuinely connecting with others via curiosity and establishing relationships that do in turn lead to less loneliness. You could take the increasingly popular contrary view that many people who use the internet—while it is a tool—are so addicted to the treadmill that is social media that they end up spending all their time in the social validation casino that they in turn feel much worse, more lonely, and less satisfied with life. At the end of the day, though, we as people are accountable for our outcomes as we have the response-ability to make our decisions and benefit/suffer from the consequences.

So then what has the advance of technology done? Surely it has brought us tools that COULD BE USED for great impact.

But has it?

My gut (not scientifically) is that loneliness is not really increasing (this also seems really hard to measure)—but it is just a part of the default nature of humans (to both crave connection but also complain when they do not have connection). We crave connection. There is connection available today just as it was years ago. But there are also more distractions available than there were before. And these distractions can provide temporary relief from the mind but only temporary.

All that being said, I think intentional approaches to decreasing loneliness in the world COULD positively impact people.

I think there is opportunity to build ~things (unclear if answer is companies or communities or housing or technology or social networks) that could more directly address this issue. It would perhaps start small but lead to something big over time.

—-

I liked this study from OurWorldInData:

Available research shows that social connections are important for our well-being. Having support from family and friends is important for our happiness and health, and is also instrumental to our ability to share information, learn from others, and seize economic opportunities.

In this article we explore data on loneliness and social connections across countries and over time, and review available evidence on how and why social connections and loneliness affect our health and emotional welfare, as well as our material well-being.

Despite the fact that there is a clear link between social connections and well-being, more research is needed to understand causal mechanisms, effect sizes and changes over time.

As we show here, oversimplified narratives that compare loneliness with smoking, or that claim we are living a ‘loneliness epidemic’, are wrong and unhelpful.

And here’s the summary from the long research report:


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