Like a novel coronavirus, no one is fully immune from the dis-ease of loneliness. A sufficient dose of self-isolation will trigger it, and that dose has become a poison for much of the world’s population in the past year. Mass adoption of audio-visual conversations, online courses and classes have been small silver linings, keeping us connected from home; the next best thing to a connection in person. But in the western world at least, a pre-existing loneliness epidemic has only been exacerbated.
The Rise of Individualism & Community Breakdown
Unfortunately, the rest of the world leads the US in clock time only. When it comes to all things culture, the U.S sets the trends; for better or worse. From about 70 B.C - that is to say, 70 years Before Covid - a loneliness epidemic, with its roots in the rise of an individualist culture, took hold in the United States.
In his 2004 book ‘Bowling Alone’, American writer Robert Putnam explored the trend of declining membership of bowling halls in the U.S from the 1950’s. The declining membership in bowling halls turned out to be reflected in a wider community breakdown. Participation in bowling tournaments was falling rapidly nationwide; so too was voluntary work in local communities. People were still doing things, but not so much together. Individuals were ‘bowling alone’. Putnam examined the converging factors accelerating this trend; more suburban living and longer commutes, ‘double-career families’, the ‘individualising effect’ of media like television, all contributing to the burgeoning culture of individualism.
Freudian Slippage to Individualism
Also in the 1950’s Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edmund Bernays began to really exploit advertising through the new technology of television. First marketing for private companies, and later for the American government, he used his uncle’s principles of human psychology to truly kick-start a mass marketing campaign.
The home-cleaning and self-grooming products previously marketed as highly functional (i.e. great at tidying and cleaning) became highly personal (i.e. they were required to become a better you). If you didn't know what you ‘needed’ before, repeated exposure to this new kind of TV advert left you with less doubt. Spending skyrocketed in a constant battle to keep up with the Jones’. With the propaganda of buying happiness airing loudly in the living rooms of the masses, the modern religion of consumerism was set in motion in the U.S. The rest of the world followed in short order.
Personality Trumping Character
At the same time, a corresponding cult of personality smoothed the trend toward individualism. Personality - how you were seen in other peoples’ eyes - began to replace the virtue of character - acting according to your conscience when no one was looking. A new breed of self-help book, addressing the question of how to be from the personality perspective, (e.g. ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’) became the bestsellers.
Biomarkers of Loneliness
The epidemiology of loneliness in the U.S since then is worrying. Each new generation has recently been found to be lonelier than the last. Now, ‘Gen Z’, (individuals born between the 1997 and the early 2000s) are the loneliest, followed by the ‘Millennials’ (those born between the years 1981 and 1996), with the post-WW2 ‘Baby Boomers’ behind them. The oldest generation studied - those of grandparenting or great-grandparenting age (often called ‘The Greatest Generation’) - were the least lonely.
“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack”.
- From ‘The Law of the Jungle’, by Rudyard Kipling
The results of scientific studies have caught up with our intuitions that loneliness is bad for you. Actually, the data exceeds our intuitions of just how bad. The studies (controlling as best they can for other major variables affecting health), reveal the frightening severity of the health risks of loneliness. Being chronically lonely significantly increases the risk of the commonest major diseases (e.g. cardiovascular diseases, depression, dementia), and poses an equivalent danger to your overall health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But while huge numbers in the West have ceased smoking - recognising an insidious killer habit for what it is - too many of us have inadvertently taken up loneliness.
A ‘Good Idea’ of the Central Nervous System
Like our distant animal ancestors - think 300-million-year-old crustaceans - parts of our central nervous system are hardwired to be social animals. How well we’re doing in broader society is constantly tracked by our CNS, and is reflected in our wellbeing. It is important to know this. Because whatever reasons or desires we may have to remain alone, this ‘good idea’ will brush up against 300 million years of ‘good idea’ evolved into our CNS.
Of course you could simply pop a pill to dull any ‘bad feelings’ relayed by the CNS. Those same antidepressants will even work on lobsters - the more direct descendants of those 300-million-year-old crustaceans. A lobsters’ CNS too, will continuously map where it fits in in the social hierarchy. To determine the ancient CNS role in all this, evolutionary biologists examined the effect of antidepressants on depressed lobsters at the bottom of the lab-lobster social hierarchy. The depressive symptoms (‘body language’ and behaviours) of these lobsters was significantly reversed by the drug-induced spike in CNS serotonin.
Aloneness & Loneliness
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Severe loneliness is vague in that you can’t point somewhere and say it hurts here. It doesn’t show as a physical deformity might, but it’s insidious pain is visceral and real. On the other hand, some measure of aloneness is often beneficial; vital in fact, to hear parts of you that would otherwise remain drowned out.
“I remember my grandfather telling me how each of us must live with a full measure of loneliness that is inescapable, and we must not destroy ourselves with our passion to escape the aloneness.”
- Jim Harrison
The prospect of permanent aloneness is deeply frightening to us all. While an hermetic path of long-term aloneness has been proclaimed necessary by saints and mystics throughout the ages, few today could deal with significant time in cave-like solitude, and return with their mind unscathed. Remember that solitary confinement is considered a brutal punishment, even in maximum security prisons. But relatively short retreats into aloneness can invite