Disconnected: fighting the 21st century loneliness epidemic

Screen Shot 2019-10-14 at 10.09.51 PMBy John Linderman

Elm Staff Writer

In 2019, we are more connected than ever. Technically. We are connected through social media, instant messaging, and the internet. These ways are expanding every day, month, and year in exponentially faster ways.

Yet, a large number of people from developed nations are reporting large amounts of loneliness. More than two in ten adults (22%) say they feel lonely or feel isolated in the United States according to a 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“A recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Fully 54% said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well,” according to an article from Forbes from May. The amount of times we see our friends is down as is the time we spend with them and our family.

Not only are we seeing this in the United States, but around the world. More than half a million people in Japan under the age of 40 haven’t interacted with anyone for at least six months, according to The Japan Times. In Canada, the number of single-person households is 28%. In the European Union, that statistic is at 34%.

Just as every human has their physical needs, like food and water, scientists are finding a growing amount of mental needs: companionship, self-value, satisfaction, and love. Scientists have linked the emotional pain from loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Our international mental health is on life support, and how did we get here?

While these results aren’t exactly surprising, seeing as our need to be social is as old as our want for food, they certainly feel more important these days.

The rise of social media and high-speed internet have physically isolated us. Small but impactful hits of dopamine from these sources keep us hooked, and weaken our incentives for active and healthy relationships. The longer we stay fixated on our screens, watching the news of the world and lives of our friends go by, the lonelier we feel.

We understand that we aren’t lonely per se, but our behaviors keep us feeling this way. Alternatively, we didn’t evolve to maintain our crucial relationships through phones and computers.

Although many people do form friendships through online communities, the cost of that is neglecting our real life relationships which, proverbially, keep us on planet Earth. Thus, we feel alone, like we’re stranded in damned territory, trapped by an alien-appointed sense of apathy.

Solution-wise, we must actively prioritize our mental health with real-life connections, because if we don’t, we’ll fall into the default, which for many people includes, but is not limited to: isolation, sedentary lifestyles, guilt, and hopelessness in an inundated world.

Mass advertising targeting our emotions of dissatisfaction has also cornered us, and we sometimes end up spending great amounts of money on products that fulfill very little. Our economy rewards this behavior, and the average consumer has become more of a victim than an empowered buyer. Our developed lifestyles have appointed this all as the default, and while the outrage against that deserves an article on its own, providing compassion over rage may be the better of the two starts.

We’re up against a vicious cycle: loneliness is often induced by depression and anxiety, and depression and anxiety are often the result of loneliness. Loneliness doesn’t have to signal an end, but maybe a stopping point; we have the power to say to ourselves, in our deepest moments of isolation and pain, that enough is enough and we deserve better, because in all honesty, we do.

If the global economy is going to treat us more like a unit than a human, of course we deserve better. At the least, we deserve another unit to share our problems with. We don’t really know exactly how we ended up here, but we do know a single human is capable of great, personal change. Team up, find a partner, and discuss everything Earth and beyond, because our lives are short and our needs are great.

Loneliness is more often a symptom than a state, and if change is truly at the core of the human experience, than we can enfranchise ourselves to deserve better. Need better, not necessarily more.

Lifestyle Editor Gabby Rente contributed to this article.

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