I’m confined at home, sick and hopped-up on painkillers and Benadryl. Besides a conversation with the pharmacist about the side effects of the medications, I haven’t spoke to anyone in days. Not that I can hold a conversation anyways.
Everything is fine, but then, I begin to feel odd — not from the injuries, but from the isolation. I send out texts to family and loved ones. A few of them respond, mostly in a functional or perfunctory manner. Everyone, it seems, is busy, but I’m satisfied — at least they know I am alive and not rotting in the bedroom as my cat eats my face.
But then, the restlessness comes back. I jump on Facebook, which I almost never do, and leave friendly, positive comments on posts of babies and party pictures. I wait for replies, but don’t get any right away — a few likes, but nothing substantial.
Next, I go on Facebook chat, but I click off quickly — I forgot I still had a few exes as friends, and the last thing I want is a real-time conversation with them. So, I hop on Gchat, but it’s a ghost town. Who Gchats anymore, anyway? So off to Twitter — but that’s just a stream of links and marketing, not the fun faux-cocktail party it used to be.
I’m dissatisfied. I’m irritated. No one is around to talk to me, and I feel… lonely.
I have plenty of friends on Facebook and Twitter and close relationships with family and loved ones, but the barrage of chats, likes and tweets don’t do much to assuage that piercing, sharp sadness of loneliness. In fact, it makes me feel just a bit more forlorn.
What’s the use of technology if I reach out and no one is there? Despite a growth of technology that promises to connect us, the knife of loneliness from modern life continues to sharpen.
According to Merriam-Webster, loneliness is defined as “being sad from being apart from people” or “being without company.” The very definition is simple, but the condition is more complex than sitting in a room by yourself.
Psychologists differentiate between loneliness and solitude. In solitude, you lack contact with other people. That isn’t necessarily loneliness: driving alone while singing to music on the radio is an experience of solitude, for example. Artists, musicians and other creative types often find it necessary for their work and seek it out.
It can also be a welcome refuge, or even spiritual practice, giving you the time and quiet for contemplation.
Loneliness, though, is the discrepancy between your desired level of social contact with what you actually achieve, according to authors Letitia Peplau and Daniel Perlman in their seminal work, “Loneliness: A Sourcebook on Current Research, Research and Therapy.” It’s that contradiction between how we want to feel versus what we actually experience that opens up the chasms of emptiness within us.
As a result, you can experience loneliness even when you’re surrounded by friends and colleagues all day and go home to a spouse, partner or children at night.
If we can experience loneliness even in the presence of others, what causes that feeling then?
Certain life events can spin you into isolation: the death of a loved one, a breakup or divorce, a move away from everything you’ve known. Chronic psychological and physical issues can also make you feel isolated, too. And those with clinical and even postpartum depression can create the feeling of loneliness, while close relationships riddled with poor communication, anger and resentment can also lead to a disconnect.
Interestingly enough, marriage often breeds loneliness for that reason — we have high expectations and desires that our spouse will keep us from feeling alone, but we often find anger and resentment building up over the years when they prove too preoccupied, busy or simply complacent about the relationship.
In fact, about three-in-five seniors said they were lonely, despite being married and living with their partners, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco in 2012, underscoring that marriage is no insurance against the feeling of desolation.
Existentialists, who follow the mid-20th-century philosophy made prominent by famed thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, believed loneliness was the essence of modern humankind. We are born alone and we ultimately die alone, and the task of human existence is coming to terms with that essential truth and finding meaning through our actions and accomplishments.
Whether you agree, loneliness is a very palpable aspect of contemporary life. Study after study finds that people of all ages feel lonelier and more isolated. In 2008, a landmark study conducted by the University of Chicago discovered that one-in-five Americans often felt lonely. And according to the AARP, in 2010, two-in-five seniors often felt the pain of being alone, up from 20 percent in the ’80s.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., the Mental Health Foundation reported that nearly three-in-five young adults aged 18 to 34, despite all their social networking, admitted to feeling isolated and disconnected often or all the time.
It turns out, social isolation doesn’t just make us sad — it can make us sick. According to a meta-analysis of studies focusing on the elderly and loneliness, seniors without adequate interaction are more likely to die prematurely. Loneliness impairs immune function, according to the University of Chicago. In terms of effect on mortality, the risk of being alone is comparable to that of smoking, and twice as dangerous as obesity.
If loneliness is really a state of disconnection — an isolation from a group, person or community — then the increasing presence of technology should help ease the pain, right?
Actually, technology has a magnifying effect on our social isolation, often making us feel more alone, or lonelier than before. Long before Facebook was even a gleam in Zuckerberg’s eye, in 1998, a seminal study conducted by Carnegie Mellon researchers showed that growing Internet use coinciding with an increase in loneliness. Meanwhile, in the ’90s, academics noted an apparent “Internet paradox,” according to The Atlantic — a contradiction between the growing opportunity to connect with others and an equally increasing lack of social contact.
With results going against expectations, researchers, scientists and academics posed the question: is technology actually making us lonelier? And that question became even more acute with the rise of social media — a set of technologies that, by definition, promise to help us connect and stay in touch.
There is no real evidence of a direct link between our enthusiasm for social media and our growing feeling of emptiness. Many of us, though, have an instinctual belief that Facebook isn’t good for our emotional health and relationships, especially in terms of the lopsided way we use it.
I can send out missives over Facebook, Twitter and e-mail while sick at home — but that’s no guarantee that people will reply, given how casual we’ve become about these avenues of communication.
Facebook, of course, can contribute to the growing sense of isolation: you log into the site and are confronted with the abundance of people’s lives humming along without you, complete with photos of trips, friends and gatherings you’re not going on. Through the same kind of social comparison that fuels hate-reading and other toxic behaviors, we can feel the inadequacy of our own social life. The gulf between what others supposedly have and our own reality can make us feel dissatisfied, and yes, a bit lonelier than we were before.
MIT professor Sherry Turkle raised the red flag over the subtle ways our devices and social media reshape how we relate to each other and ourselves. In her book “Alone Together,” she tells is a cautionary polemic against the way technology is sculpting our communication and relationships. Our propensity for Skype, text and Facebook, among other online and mobile methods, puts control and convenience at the forefront, but at the cost of genuine connection.
Turkle, whose earlier works included “The Second Self” and “Life On the Screen,” has made it her career to study the effects of computers and technology on social relations. In the era of technology, she argues that many of our online connections are, by design, shallow and superficial. Devices and practices like texting give you more control over what you show, but also allow you to disengage from communication at will.
According to Turkle, people are “drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand,” leading to emotional laziness and neglect — mistaking a “like” on Facebook as a genuine connection or a chat with someone because they happen to be online. As a result, we don’t expect so much from our online friends, and that convenient and cavalier approach also fuels a tendency to treat others as objects or fads that are quickly discarded as we move to the next thing.
It is connection on demand, and when it gets difficult or boring, it’s easy just to switch off. In some ways, that is what we love about communicating online and over devices — but ultimately, it breeds loneliness.
“Well, what’s wrong with that?” you may ask. We all feel uncomfortable when we’re in an exchange with someone and it becomes either too revealing or too vulnerable. In person, there’s no escaping someone’s keen gaze or scrutiny. But electronically, we can switch it off and find relief from the discomfort — or we just never have to get that deep.
Switching away or avoiding those revealing moments, ironically, creates more loneliness by robbing us of the opportunity to create a bond. Genuine connection and companionship, according to Turkle, involves emotional risk — the risk of being authentically yourself, of being vulnerable, honest and open. Essentially, it involves intimacy in various degrees: a close feeling of friendship, attachment or affinity.
Loneliness, then, is really an absence of intimacy in our lives. We can be married, go to work and hang out with friends, but if we feel there’s no one we can really confide in — and no one who really “gets” and understands us — we feel alone, disconnected and untethered to others. Those kind of close bonds often need an investment of time to create and maintain. Technology can help provide the channel, but we have to give real, authentic content for them to create genuine sharing and social bonds.
Though it’s convenient and easy, technology often gives the illusion of companionship and connection without the risks of intimacy and connection — and we settle for the illusion instead of putting in the effort. There’s no risk in liking a friend’s big announcement of a professional or personal accomplishments on Facebook, for example — but to express your congratulations in person while grappling with your own feelings of envy, inadequacy or sadness is much more difficult.
It’s easier just to keep our interaction then at Facebook-level — but it keeps us safe, but alone.
Though we’re accustomed to talking about intimacy in primarily romantic or sexual terms, intimacy to some degree or another is the connective tissue in healthy relationships of all kinds, ranging from family to friendships. Closeness can be cultivated with the soul mate you marry, but also with the conversations you have with your hairdresser or the rapport you have with the man at the deli that hands you your coffee every morning and asks about your kids.
It takes all kinds of connections to create a sense of relatedness permeating your life, but the result is feeling like you’re knit into a genuine social fabric. An active Facebook can be part of that mosaic of connection, but it can’t be the strongest or primary one.
In truth, the “epidemic of loneliness” is likely the result of large-scale changes in society and economics, not just technology. Overall, more of us in the U.S. live alone than ever before — about one-in-four of Americans, according U.S. Census Bureau — and move farther away from families and friends for work and education. We have to rebuild our social fabrics more often, and there’s no real way to accelerate the process of forming genuine bonds in our communities and relationships.
We also have less time to do this, as a result of lengthening workdays and crushing economic pressures. It all adds up to added stress — and a growing sense of being alone in the world.
In the end, technology doesn’t cause loneliness — it’s something we do to ourselves, whether it’s out of fear, shyness, anxiety, fatigue or plain old laziness. Technology makes it easy for us to mistake popularity for rapport, and “likes” for genuine bonds. But human bonds take time, effort and care to form and maintain, as well as an intentionality often sacrificed in favor of the prized convenience of technology.
It’s really up to us to restore that sense of mindfulness with how we use our devices to communicate and relate to one other.
The biggest tip, often, is to turn off the devices. Marriage counselors of all stripes advise couples, for example, to turn off their phones or tablets in bed. But the advice also applies when you’re out at drinks with friends, at lunch with colleagues or hanging out with children. The intention is to be fully present when you’re with someone and give them the gift of your full attention.
Technology can do wonders as a tool to connect us, if used with intention. A Sydney University project helped seniors learn how to use Facebook, Skype and Twitter, and found that their levels of loneliness and isolation decreased as they reached out to their community.
The most radical advice to ease the loneliness of technology, though, may be to simply allow yourself to be… lonely. Buddhists have long advocated simply letting difficult emotions run their course and pass through you in meditation, and not try to reduce the discomfort.
Comedian Louis C.K. joked about the approach in an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show, talking about how smartphones have taken away the ability for people to simply sit still and feel the “emptiness” and loneliness of time. Though he takes a comical slant to the idea, he believes the essential emptiness is part of being human — and necessary to appreciating genuine happiness.
Louis C.K. may be a closet existentialist, but his humorous take sheds light on the fact that everyone will, at some point in their life, experience loneliness, whether it’s because our family or friends die or, like me, simply because we’re ill and everyone is busy. We can jump on Facebook, send out a text or browse the Internet to escape the discomfort. But then we also lose a deeper appreciation of the happiness and people in our lives already, as well as opportunities to develop insight on where we want to go deeper. ♦