Loneliness: Tracing the Roots of Social Isolation
All the Lonely People, Where Do They All Come From?
Loneliness is a condition we are all inherently vulnerable to experiencing, as humans are social animals. Like hunger or thirst signalling we need sustenance, loneliness is an innate signal that our need to belong is being unsatisfied by the quantity or quality of our relationships. Global studies confirm that loneliness is a worldwide issue, yet people are still incredibly reluctant to speak openly about being lonely. There is a powerful stigma attached to loneliness which 21st century culture insidiously pressures us to perpetuate. Take for example, the “embrace loneliness” trend, pushed by self-help gurus in countless lifestyle articles. These articles smugly sell the idea that it’s possible to altogether eliminate loneliness by simply “learning to love oneself”.
It’s a false and harmful premise; that people only experience loneliness because they cannot bear to be alone with themselves. We shouldn’t aspire to love loneliness; in the same way we wouldn’t love hunger, calling it “a matter of perspective”. Learning to be comfortable with solitude and time spent alone with one’s thoughts is an important message. However, the “embrace loneliness” movement is both deeply misguided and dangerous in its effort to shame loneliness. “Embrace loneliness” supporters are better off promoting a lifestyle in which we’re encouraged to regularly examine the quality our relationships. It’s from here that we will be able to lead more fulfilling lives, and moments of solitude can be enjoyed more freely without being forced.
Our changing lifestyles have undeniably produced an environment conducive to poor psychological wellbeing, as the current number of one-person households is unprecedented. Cities are designed as dense population spaces to facilitate economic activity, with little regard for the personal welfare of those that fill them. Public spaces are being replaced with apartment blocks, and with it we are losing the opportunity to connect with each other. Being alone and lonely are two different things, but expert studies have shown most people who are lonely tend to be alone and socially isolated.
Today, a person can live without ever leaving their apartment; ordering food, entertainment and even transient relationships at the touch of a button. If they desire the illusion of human interaction, they can travel to online echo chambers. They can do this with the surety that they’ll never even be bothered by a neighbour checking up on them. Many are quick to point to social media and technology as the cause of loneliness, claiming the proliferation of devices has eroded our attention spans and ability to socialise. The dominant narrative says that prior to mobile phones there was a golden age in which being idle in solitude was no issue.
However, we ought to be suspicious of any narrative that neatly finds someone, or something new to blame. Lonely people certainly use social media as a means of masking and dulling their unhappiness, but it is certainly not the root cause. It’s being reported that psychologists are diagnosing some millennials with social media addictions, so like all addictions we must find the cause of the dependency in the first place. We must examine what is missing from people’s lives that lead them to developing the addiction. In this case however, we are looking at a society-wide epidemic rather than an individual issue, so what is it about society that is causing widespread illness, addiction and suicide? The answer may partially lie in the late 1800s of France.
In the 1890s, Émile Durkheim, known as the ‘father’ of sociology recognised that he was living through a period of immense societal change. He watched as France was rapidly transforming from an agricultural society to an urbanised and industrial economy. People were no longer forced to depend on agriculture and farming the land for sustenance. Instead, farmers were becoming paid factory workers and technology was enabling mass production of goods. The proletariat were gifted a higher standard of living, but in exchange they now existed as anonymous cogs within an urban machine. Capitalism was giving society access to an unprecedented level of wealth and material goods, but Durkheim was concerned that people were unknowingly paying high psychological costs in return.
Durkheim found that a nation’s suicide rates dramatically surged when it was industrialised and embraced consumerist culture. In his groundbreaking work, Le Suicide, Durkheim outlines a condition he calls anomie, which he believed was driving people to suicide. Anomie occurs when a society fails to deliver its citizens shared purpose or ideals resulting in a social breakdown as common values are no longer understood or accepted. Today, anomie is often discussed as a psychological state characterised by a sense of futility, lack of purpose, and emotional emptiness. Durkheim believed individualism was fracturing the traditional makeup of society and questioned whether it could adequately hold society together without enduring devastating costs.
In an agrarian society people’s lives were essentially laid out for them from birth and there were a clear set of rules and values that were rarely deviated from. Children grew up to assume their parent’s work, people practiced the dominant religion of the state and married for practicality over finding “the one”. There was very little room for personal choice as people’s identities were intrinsically tied to their social group. Today under capitalism we treasure the ability to choose our job, religion, partner and just about every single other facet of life. Capitalism has given us extraordinary freedoms, but it has also placed an incredible burden at our feet. We are continually forced to construct our identity without any clear guidance or societal norms to follow. In reality being told, “You are unique” is not as empowering as we might have hoped, it instead solidifies the notion that in our uniqueness we are ultimately alone. Modern society fails spectacularly in providing us with the answers we spend a lifetime chasing, it cannot give us a clear role or sense of belonging. There are no longer shared values or a collective purpose to life; instead we hear the vague statement “life is what you make it”. We no longer seek out meaning from shared bonds with family, extended family, tribe, community or society.
Put simply, there are no longer any guides or anchors that we can attach our identity to, we are on our own. It is no wonder that people suffer a deeper, existential form of loneliness. Existential loneliness is felt as personal incompleteness, as though there is always something missing from life. Durkheim saw the grounds for existential loneliness developing as individualism prospered and people were pitted against each other to compete for finite resources.
Family in Western society has beared the brunt of this disconnection brought on by modernity and individualism. Growing up we are told to “be your own person”, and are encouraged to abandon any pressure to follow in our parent’s footsteps. As adults, we don’t expect to work or live with them and socialising tends to be reserved for special family gatherings. Family no longer gives us a stable sense of belonging or identity that it once offered us. Consider cultures which prize family honour; almost everything is done with the family honour in mind, and fulfilling those familial expectations gives its members a sense of belonging and greater purpose.
Nowadays, the Western nuclear family often boils down to little more than a living arrangement and once an integral part of the family, elderly people are quickly abandoned and often go months without being visited by relatives.
To keep us numb to the hardships of life, capitalism produces an excessive level of manufactured optimism. We are cheerfully told that with hard work, we can move up the class ladder and live a life of luxury. Although deep down we know it is not that easy, advertising everywhere keeps us perpetually starving for more and to “enjoy”. Durkheim was critical of modern society’s inability to admit that life is often misery. It is not difficult to find evidence of systemic economic inequality within society, in spite of the dream that we can all be rich. However, capitalism has cultivated such a strong grip over our psyche that we dare not voice our objections out loud. Instead we are forced to buy into the contradictory notion that it is possible for everyone to simultaneously be financially successful. The truth is life is often both miserable and painful, but we’re pressured to bottle up our pain and feign a smile.
At risk of falling into a trap that I set out to avoid, that is perpetuating a narrative of a golden age, it is worth stating Durkheim did not live in a utopia; his society was fraught with social exclusion, illness and poverty. However, history can often help us find the solutions to present-day problems and Durkheim’s observations are no exception. We need to begin reengaging in communal activities where we can find meaning and identity based in tangible things, rather than retreating into social isolation or online echo chambers. To do any of this, we first need to get more comfortable about discussing loneliness, and tackle the harmful perception that it only affects a select few.
Orson Welles once said, “We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone”. Many people especially relate to the first part of this quote, identifying with the existential loneliness it speaks to. However it’s fundamentally wrong, firstly we are all born to a mother regardless of how that relationship may develop afterwards. Welles might’ve said as long as we are unique individuals, we are ultimately alone in our experience of living, but I reject this cynicism. Life is made whole when we have people to know us, to validate our identity is no mere illusion and to confirm we belong in society. The most comforting moments in life can be found when a friend recognises our idiosyncrasies, or washes away fears that our most alienating, troublesome or strange thoughts may go forever misunderstood. We know this connection cannot be an ‘illusion’ because we have all felt it in these moments. This is why we must reach out and take care of each other, because without each other we cease to exist.