America the Lonely

In an age of unprecedented access to others, we feel most alone.

At least, this is what the data indicates. Take a survey just released by Cigna of more than 20,000 U.S. adults. It found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. A whopping 43% sometimes or always felt that their relationships weren’t meaningful, and the same percentage reported feeling isolated from others. Worse, 20% rarely or never feel close to people.

These results aren’t new. A 2016 Harris Poll of 2,000 American adults, for example, reported that 72% felt a sense of loneliness and 31% experienced loneliness at least once a week. AARP has reported loneliness rates of over 40% in their studies of older adults.

Loneliness has been increasing steadily since the 1970s and 80s, despite our expanding forms of communication.

Where those sad sacks from yesteryear had to rely on in-person meetings, mailed letters and landline phones, we now have text, social media messaging, video conferencing, email, and more.

And they all exist at our fingertips. With a single lazy swipe or press of a button, we can summon someone from across the world.

We can just as easily use our all-powerful fingers to delete, swipe past or hastily tap out angry words or a disagreeable emoji. It’s easy when you’re interacting with a screen, when the person you’re talking to is just a static, ridiculously small pixel face.

We didn’t always live like this, but times have changed.

Since the Internet, we have learned to interact with our environment by scanning for information efficiently and quickly. Technology has allowed us to be more creative and access multiple sources of information almost simultaneously, but there is a cost.

Distractions are everywhere. The demands on our attention are constantly increasing. We respond by rapidly switching tasks and are rewarded with a big dose of happy sauce (aka dopamine) for doing so. But this taxes the brain, which then has to reorient itself to the new task, further draining neural resources.

This impacts learning, but also how we interact with each other.

Think about your recent interactions. Even the so-called gold standard of in-person meetings have become tainted with the constant presence of our newest appendage, the cellphone. Meaningful conversation has imploded into fragments of superficial chit-chat, email checks, selfie breaks, Facebook messaging, texts and video breaks.

People have become the stars of their own show, with families and friends serving as lowly unpaid extras.

Too many people no longer have the time or inclination to foster relationships. Instead, we treat people as we do tasks — skimming the surface, quickly moving from one to the other, looking for the next big chemical rush.

The high reported frequency of “phantom smartphone buzzing,” which tricks our brains into thinking our phone is vibrating when it isn’t, underscores this phenomenon. We’re hooked on news and updates, even if that update is so banal as a sale at Pottery Barn or a picture of Kylie Jenner’s newly waxed eyebrows.

We may live in a world of plenty, but loneliness isn’t about the number of contacts we have. It’s about our subjective experience of those contacts.

If you look across the table and feel like the person you’re staring at is focused on their phone instead of you, you might feel lonely.

If you’re with a group of friends and they’re hastily looking around the room, skimming as they are conditioned to do for that next big buzz, you might feel lonely.

If you have thousands of friends on social media and yet not one can do more than press that standard ‘like’ button on your status updates, perhaps you feel alone.

If you try to tell a story and get interrupted because the people you’re with no longer have the ability to listen, then it’s not surprising you feel alone.

We may blame it on the changing landscape of America, with people moving for their jobs, our long hours of work, or the commute. But it’s likely more than that.

It’s likely because how we interact with the world has changed, and our brain has been rewired as a result. To maintain pace with a society on technological hyper-drive, it’s not always in our best interest to slow down and dive deep into any one thing, even if that one thing is a beloved person in your life.

Of course, we can change. We can make a commitment to focus on each other a little more, go deeper with those we love. We can make a concerted effort to turn off our phones and computers, to silence whatever digital nonsense we have on our wrists, remove competing distractions, and retrain our brains to focus.

It may feel difficult, painful, and even cause Instagram withdraw jitters. But perhaps it’s time to take a cue from our ancestors and relearn how to sit back, listen, question, learn, and foster more complex, layered, and meaningful connections. Maybe then we’ll realize how lonely we’ve actually been all these years. Maybe then we can stop this epidemic of loneliness and begin to heal.

Amanda

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