“A human being is part of a whole called by us universe.” — Albert Einstein
This week I finally put into words what I’ve been learning and thinking about connection, community, and loneliness since I left the familiarity of my world in New York and unexpectedly began to build a new life and a new community on another continent.
From an evolutionary perspective, we have always been stronger together. Social bonds meant safety in numbers, the ability to reproduce, and economies of scale. And when we feel like we belong, we feel supported and empowered. We have more confidence and are more likely to take creative risks, to innovate and flourish. We also learn a lot just from interacting with each other—in fact, neuroscientists believe that it was the need to send, receive, and comprehend complex social messages that led our brains to expand and develop into what they are today.
Just as physical pain serves to prevent us from hurting ourselves (remember the Muscle Spindle Stretch Receptor?), loneliness evolved to discourage us from risking social isolation. Feeling lonely is meant to be a reminder to reconnect, to reach out and repair broken bonds. If we remain lonely, our worlds start to fall apart: chronic loneliness erodes our bodies and our minds, leading to depression, anxiety, physical illness, and dementia.
While loneliness and social isolation have always existed (consider Shelley’s monster of Frankenstein or Milton’s Satan), before the second half of the 20th century the word “loneliness” was predominately used to describe a sense of physical separation from society. It is only more recently that it has been employed to describe a subjective experience, one that is plaguing so many people in modern society that it has begun to be called an epidemic.
This week, I wondered: what if, in the past, we took for granted the strength of our communities, the natural networks we had to connect and support us? And what if, ironically, our resulting innovation and technological growth has led to a world in which we feel increasingly isolated?
This isolation is in part physical—we have moved away from living with bigger families; we no longer need to interact with others to fulfill our basic needs; we are attending religious and group gatherings less and less.
Yet even when we are together, we are often alone, plugged in to our separate smart-phone worlds. And even in those worlds, when we interact with people, it is often not as ourselves, but as digital personalities—ones that simultaneous feel permitted to say the cruelest words on Twitter or Reddit and compelled to present a picture-perfect image on Instagram.
The world of social media can also amplify existing feelings of loneliness. Feeling isolated is often relational—because we think we don’t have such strong social ties as others do. We might have ten truly close friends, but when we see someone get 300 likes on their most recent Instagram photo, we wonder why we don’t have more. And that feeling is actually contagious. So when we are surrounded by people who feel lonely, we are more likely to feel lonely as well. We might all be connected to a network, but it’s one that’s generating and spreading isolation.
And so in 2019 we find ourselves depressed, anxious, addicted, angry, suicidal and homicidal at unprecedented rates. Yes, Steven Pinker, we might be better off by all physical measures than our forebears (we’re less likely to die of cholera, tuberculosis, or in childbirth) and we enjoy more individual rights (like freedom from discrimination and cruel and unusual punishment), but what is the status of our subjective well-being? Has our progress only led us to develop new, more subtle afflictions?
Paradoxically, while most of our objective progress is so often attributed to Enlightenment thinkers, who valued reason and efficiency, their significant focus on the rights of the individual, rather than the strength of the community, may have contributed to our current state of isolation.
Of course, we have gained a great deal from recognizing the importance of the individual. But those thinkers likely took connection and community for granted—because, for them, it had always been built in. It’s like early scientific experiments before we understood oxygen—we couldn’t see it, so we didn’t understand that it impacted everything around it, including the other elements of the experiment.
Now we are experiencing a world without oxygen. But if we’ve realized that connection increases well-being and encourages innovation and objective process, shouldn’t we, as a society and an economy, do our best to maximize it? Why can’t community be promoted in a capitalist framework, after all, if it’s actually in our best economic interest as well?
Unfortunately, we might have to wait a long time for any top-down framework to maximize connection. After all, it’s easier to sell lonely people both things and ideas. (To her credit, Theresa May did create a Ministry of Loneliness in the UK, though she herself may soon be looking for a job there.)
But at least we can try to do something in our own lives.
The problem is, even without technology separating us, real connection is hard. Because real connection, the kind that reduces loneliness, requires us to be authentic. Being authentic, in turn, requires us to be vulnerable. And while one part of our brain recognizes that connection is good, another naturally recoils at the idea of exposing our weaknesses.
That fear is not totally off base, either. We are all capable of hurting each other.
The deepest hurt, of course, often comes after we’ve allowed ourselves to be truly vulnerable, after we’ve shared that most intimate part of ourselves with another person—the unique, inner world we’ve created and hidden out of fear that no one will understand it. We trust another person to honor that sacred part of us, but they disregard or disrespect it.
So we withdraw within, wrap ourselves more tightly to ensure protection, outwardly portraying images of confidence while inwardly believing that perhaps we’re not worthy of connection. But of course, it’s a vicious cycle. When we close ourselves off, we end up rejecting others who share themselves with us, hurting them as much as we have been hurt. And we eventually all find ourselves feeling alone, angry, and scared.
We are all walking around wounded and wounders.
Yet our separation is not irreversible. We can learn how to feel understood, loved, and trusting again. And when we see the wounded and the wounder in another, we can connect in a new way. We can understand that the pain other people cause us almost always stems from their own wounds. And we can see in everyone that fundamental yearning to be seen and appreciated. It’s there, even if we’ve built walls around it and told ourselves we don’t need anyone, or don’t deserve anyone.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can connect with the vulnerability in others. There are now countless stories of people reaching out to those who have trolled them online, explaining how hurt they have been made to feel. And time and again we see people who have flung the worst insults explaining how hurt they themselves often feel. As Lindy West noted after having a conversation with a man who admitted he took out the pain of feeling “fat, unloved, passionless, and purposeless” by abusing self-confident women online: “It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity.”
Yes, to be vulnerable and connect has a risk, but also an unparalleled payoff. And just maybe, our current state of collective hurt makes us all the more able to connect, because we have so much vulnerability to share.
But how do we start? Two years ago, my New Year’s resolution was actually to be more active on social media, because I felt I had lost touch with certain people I cared about, but who now lived far away. At first, I was pleased with my decision—I was happy to learn about what was going on in old acquaintances’ lives, and they seemed happy to know what was going on in mine.
Yet what began as a goal to post every few weeks on Instagram and check in every few days on Facebook quickly turned into checking those platforms multiple times a day. I tried not to care how many likes I got on posts, but of course I did. I felt terrible when I forgot to like posts, or liked some rather than others, simply because I didn’t check my accounts frequently enough. It developed into an odd, terrible little cycle: I felt bad when I didn’t use social media, but when I started using it, the more I felt compelled to use it, and the worse I felt.
So this summer, I basically stopped again. I do check my accounts every few days or so, but I rarely post. I decided that since I’m not working at the relentless pace I was before, I have more time to connect with the people I care about directly: by visiting, calling, texting.
I do feel better, in that I don’t experience anxiety and I don’t spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t make me happy. But I haven’t been able to let go of this nagging feeling that I could be connecting more: I’m curious about how a former classmate of mine is doing, but I don’t have her number; I get asked if I can put up more pictures and posts; I miss little things that mean a lot in people’s lives.
So the alternate truth is, social media does allow us to stay connected with the broader network of people who have grown important to us throughout our lives. And the truth is, we can still have authentic and meaningful interactions with each other using this technology.
But just as it’s up to us to be the people we want to be, it’s up to us to use technology in a way that serves us. Of course, there will always be forces of our own nature and forces of society that compel us to act in ways that are inconsistent with who we know we want to be; and those same forces are compelling us to use technology in a way that ultimately hurts us. Recognizing those forces and their power is important. But that does not mean we need to resign ourselves to being victimized by them. Much in this world is out of our control, but we do have the power to choose how we react and relate to ourselves and those around us.
That’s why I’ve decided to try a third way. Inspired by Cal Newport’s digital minimalism and a good friend’s commitment to only posting authentic moments, I am slowly increasing my participation in social media that I find adds value in my life (currently, Strava and occasionally Facebook and Instagram), and hope to myself post semi-regular snippets of how I’m actually spending my days (though this blog isn’t a bad map of how my brain is spending them). I am turning off notifications, though, so I’m not constantly tempted to be drawn in to likes and updates.
It might not work, but the optimist in me wants to believe there’s a middle ground between either burying my head in the sand while change sweeps through or getting swept off my feet.
Ultimately, however, social media need only make up a tiny part of how we connect. And I can’t help but feel that many people these days are searching for in-person community: look at the rise of yoga studios, CrossFit, SoulCycle, running groups, co-working spaces. We crave not just being around other people, but being with them in a way that encourages honesty, vulnerability, and mutual support.
But we don’t always need to be around other people to feel connected. In fact, research has shown that people who are chronically lonely often experience anxiety when they find themselves in social situations, resulting in a self-defeating loop of behavior. Simply forcing yourself into a group, then, won’t necessarily work. What will is beginning to change the fundamental ways in which you perceive yourself and other people.
Reading might be a good place to start. When we read, we get to go inside other people’s worlds and experience how much we have in common with them, even if they live in another place or time. Children who grow up reading not only do better in school, but they have higher self-esteem and are more empathetic. And recent research shows that introducing reading to adults does reduce loneliness. Encouraging them to then share their experiences with others in groups creates further connection.
Meditation can also help. Meditation not only decreases general anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, but it disconnects people from self-defeating thoughts and helps them be more present in their day-to-day lives. Meditation also allows us to understand how little there really is separating us and others, and to appreciate that every moment we have together is precious. Of course, there is also metta, or loving kindness meditation, which focuses solely on feeling warmth and kindness for ourselves and everyone around us, expressing the wish that all beings be happy. Through meditation, we become aware that, even when we are apart, we are always all connected.
The first and most important step is recognizing that there’s nothing wrong with us for feeling lonely. It’s not about fixing ourselves. It’s about being honest with ourselves and listening to what we most deeply need and deserve in our lives. We might have lost our way, but it’s never too late to take a new path. And we don’t have to be perfect in going down it. There’s no one right way to connect with each other, but if we each find our own way, together we can continue to evolve this world.
Tara Brach, Survival of the Nurtured
Johann Hari, Lost Connections
Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human
Don Miguel Ruiz, The Voice of Knowledge
Daniel Kanneman on The Ted Interview
Chris Anderson on The Ezra Klein Show