Loneliness and The Illusion Of Connectivity

Family and friendships help people develop their resilience to life’s tribulations and to bounce back from setbacks. There is no greater antidote to life’s stresses than satisfying human relationships.

One of the main costs of the automated and impersonalized modern life is that our capacity to connect well to other people is being diminished. For example, in my neighbourhood our automated garage and home doors make it almost impossible for neighbours to bump into one another.  Hence, I do not get to see my neighbours except on purpose. While the national, religious, and tribal loyalties are easier to pretend; today’s individual is surely less loyal to the very primary human relationships of family, friends, classmates, employees, employers etc. In an increasingly individualistic pursuit of wealth and by treating internet networks as ‘social’, we are often foregoing meeting real people – a part of life that keeps us happier and healthier. Regardless of your bank or success ‘capital,’ people with low ‘social capital’ are more likely to lack empathy with others and to feel disliked. As a result of which they fear rejection, which nourishes their tendency to be lonely. When the misfortune strikes, they feel they are the only ones suffering.

Feeling isolated can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, weaken immunity, increase depression, and lower subjective wellbeing. Loneliness is frequently the root cause of feelings of rage, melancholy, despair, worthlessness, bitterness, meaninglessness, helplessness, and gloom. John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, is the world’s leading expert on loneliness. In his landmark book, Loneliness, he revealed just how profoundly the epidemic of loneliness is affecting the basic functions of human physiology. He found higher levels of epinephrine, the stress hormone, in the morning urine of lonely people. Loneliness burrows deep: “When we drew blood from our older adults and analyzed their white cells,” he writes, “we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed.” Loneliness affects not only the brain, then, but the basic process of DNA transcription. When you are lonely, your whole body is lonely. Mother Teresa had seen it all to know: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.” The problem, if at all, has become more serious since Mother Teresa spoke these words just three decades ago. The latest medical research shows that lonely people are almost two times more prone to dying prematurely than those who do not suffer from loneliness. And this is only about longevity without taking into account the impact of loneliness on one’s quality of life. Hence, over all, being lonely can be more distressing than being diabetic, for instance. And it is more painful.

We live faster, travel more, and spend more time by ourselves than at any moment in human history. While the social scientists continue to unravel the consequences of these changes, one thing is clear – loneliness is our harvest. The greatest irony of our age is that we look to be better ‘connected’ to become lonelier. Every lonely adult reminds me of a kid in my school who always ate lunch by himself on a bench, without ever sharing with other children. In the longer run such behaviour invariably means a movement away from the concern for others and being focused on your own short-term interests. This runs counter to the age-old proven wisdom that we are social animals who work most effectively in a collective. I grew up in a small town, where nobody would even consider passing another human and not offering a greeting. When I moved to Karachi, I realized the denser an area with people, the less likely we are to acknowledge each other. We take other people for granted. They are not people to connect; we see them as a nuisance or an obstacle to overcome.

In West, there have been a number of research studies on the loneliness of old people. That surely is a problem, but aren’t we missing something here? I am convinced that a sense of isolation does not arrive with grey hair; instead it is bred by an individual and fostered by a society. Yes, the students have to work hard in isolation and researchers have to toil in seclusion. But that has always been the case. We need to understand that being alone is not the same as being lonely. Plenty of people have always gone through the periods of complete seclusion on purpose. The problem arises when our regular lifestyle diminishes our capacity to connect and our sense to reconnect. A deficiency that becomes a lot harder to bear when we get old and live a less active life. Loneliness is not just a matter of external conditions; it is a state of being. In an extreme evidence of what a modern lifestyle can bring, in Britain, a young woman named Joyce Carol Vincent died and wasn’t discovered for over two years. Neighbours ignored the strange smell coming from her apartment and, when her body was finally found, the TV was still on. She became the subject of morbid fascination, a documentary, and a movie by Carol Morley. A number of other such cases have also occurred.

Mind you my writings never reek of nostalgia for good old days and neither does this piece. That would not only be useless but also utterly ungrateful for the efficiency and elegance that the technology brings. It is up to us to learn to use them to our optimal benefit. For example, after fooling around a bit on Facebook I learnt that a connection is not the same thing as a bond and that Facebook is not meant to create bonds. The problem arises when we look for intimacy in internet connections and communications. As John Cacioppo explains: “Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need. But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.” The “real thing” being actual people, in the flesh. “For the most part,” he says, “people are bringing their old friends, and feelings of loneliness or connectedness, to Facebook.”  Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user. “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact,” he says, “it increases social capital.” So if social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy. If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.

Yes, our web of connections has grown broader, but, to mind the cost, it has become shallower – in fact, a lot shallower. Yes, we have never been more accessible, but we have also never lived in greater isolation. The technology continues to create a world in which we cannot afford to be out of contact for a fraction of a second. In 2010, at a cost of $300 million, 800 miles of fibre-optic cable was laid between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange to shave three milliseconds off trading times. Yet, we have never been more detached from one another. More and more of social media means less and less of actual society. We live in bedsits of individual existence along the freeways of connectivity and information, many of us addicted to Facebook – a company whose market value is bigger than the entire global coffee industry, for instance. Social networking could be furthering the same isolation that many people use it to conquer. Yes, it serves an important purpose but the idea a website could deliver a more friendly, interconnected world is bogus. The depth of one’s social network outside Social media is what determines the depth of one’s social network within Facebook, not the other way around. Using social media doesn’t create new social networks; it just transfers established networks from one platform to another and can be used productively to maintain and reinforce those. Social media can never compensate for the joy of making new acquaintances at a party, for the annoyance at someone next to you devoted to farting out his visceral odours, or the disbelief of someone spilling her drinks on to you.

In fact, people, in most households, continue to debate whether the technology makes us feel more connected or more isolated. The jury is still out? Probably yes, though not for me. A detailed study by the University of Michigan recently showed that using Facebook increased feelings of loneliness and alienation: “On the surface,” the researchers wrote, “Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.” In my personal observation the lonelier a person seems to be the hungrier she is for the hollow online world of ‘friends,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘retweets.’ In my view, while it is not a cure for loneliness, Facebook in itself does not create loneliness for a normal person. The people who experience loneliness on Facebook are lonely away from Facebook too and merely use Facebook as a platform for lonely skulking. As everywhere else, correlation is not causation. What matters is how you use it. Initially I also wasted a lot of time on the Facebook through passive consumption of others’ activities and thoughts and broadcasting my status updates. Over a period of time I have disciplined myself to use it more productively or, shall we say, less harmfully.

One, I keep the number of friends very restricted to the people I know personally. I only accept requests for friends from people who at least have one close acquaintance as a ‘mutual friend.’ Which means that the activities of a majority of my Facebook ‘friends’ are of personal interest to me.

Two, instead of meaninglessly scanning status updates, I use it for more personalized small messages.

Three, when something merits my attention then, instead of clicking the meaningless ‘like’ button, I try and make a brief comment to communicate my feeling.

Four, I have decided to eliminate all unhappy interaction with and reaction to Facebook.

To summarize, the truth is that loneliness is not something that Facebook or the social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves and are using the social media as a tool, just as we can use a car to travel alone or to pick our friends on the way. Most of our life’s pursuits exhibit a direct correlation between valuation and achievement. Use Social media as a means to achieve or preserve what you value and not as a refuge.

What is ironical is that, despite its harmful effects, loneliness is something we spend our wealth cultivating. For example, moving into bigger and more isolated houses from cramped districts, preferring to travel alone in cars rather than public transport, working in cubicles instead of open-plans, we buy online instead of buying at the stores etc.  Blaming technology as some fuzzy, unfriendly force of history driving our actions is a lame explanation. We make decisions about how we use our machines, not the other way around. I try and keep a balance in deciding when to bypass the circus of our world to serve myself. I try and retain a modicum of pleasurable human interactions with some salesmen, insurance agents, travel agents who I choose because I enjoy dealing with them. New studies continue to enhance our understanding of loneliness. People who are married are less lonely than single people, one journal article suggests, but only if their spouses are confidants. If one’s spouse is not a confidant, marriage may not decrease loneliness. A belief in God also helps. According to a German study relating levels of religiousness to levels of loneliness found that believers who saw God as abstract and helpful rather than as a wrathful, immediate presence were less lonely. “The mere belief in God,” the researchers concluded, “was relatively independent of loneliness.”  What remains irrefutable, though, is that real person-to-person social interaction matters. If we meet fewer people and get together less than when we do get together our bonds are less important and less fluid. To me, the decrease in the quality of social connections has been the single most important cause for the rise in loneliness that we are witnessing. We all have far less personal confidants than our ancestors, a void that we try to fill by hiring professional carers by using battalions of clinical psychologists, social workers, marriage (and all kinds of) therapists, mental-health counselors, substance-abuse counselors, life coaches and what not. In the absence of a psychiatric diagnosis, these psychic attendants merely help us cope with what were regular problems of life. The biggest antidote to the epidemic of loneliness is to create a life and a society which does not outsource the work of everyday caring. As simple as this!

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