So You'Re Lonely

Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can have a negative effect on a person's thoughts, behavior, feelings, world view and physical well-being. | Photo: | Depression, Sad, Unhappy, Negative, Trauma, Lonliness,

Don't feel bad; it's worse than you think.

"I'm just trying to connect with someone for an hour. People used to do that. It's about community and interaction and helping people. People are designed to help other people. But we live in a culture where people are consumed by their own bullshit and they don't think they have time to help other people."

Marc Maron said this in explanation of his comedic podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. The podcast is wildly popular, and yet there isn't really a through line or idea for it at all. In its beginnings it was slated as a comedian interviewing other comedians, but within the first few episodes it turned into something like "Marc Maron asks various famous people about their childhoods and life traumas". In the podcast he has comedians, musicians, filmmakers, journalists, and more come in and talk about, well, life and stuff, man. Maron also spends the first fifteen minutes of his podcasts complaining about the minutiae of his life. Doesn't sound terribly interesting, does it? And yet it is currently the twelfth most popular podcast on iTunes, and second most popular comedy podcast. Why do so many people tune in to listen to some guy talk about sad things?

WTF is the inevitable result of the modern philosophies that have created a society of loneliness. Modern society is lonely society. A staggering 20% of Americans report being consistently lonely; more are intermittently so. What's more, loneliness keeps advancing. In 1985, in response to researchers asking "how many confidants do you have?", the most common response was 3. In 2004 the same question was asked; 25% (the most common response) answered with 0. In current society, 1 in every 4 people feel they have absolutely no one to talk to about what's in their hearts.

Is this a problem? Get over it, right? Life is hard in this speedy society of ours; buck up. But that simply isn't the case and is vastly ignorant of the human condition, and the science of it. In 2008 John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, released his book Loneliness. In it he explains that loneliness is destructive in more ways than feeling a little down.

Marc Maron is correct in saying "People are designed to help other people". As Cacioppo explains, if humanity were put in some alien zoo, we would be classified as "obligatorily gregarious" ' meaning we should never be put in solitary, or even low density, cages. Humans have to be around others or we deteriorate. Chronic loneliness is a state which Cacioppo's research shows to be a distinct, painful condition, with powerfully negative psychological and physiological effects. Even though lonely people have roughly the same level of social connections, attractiveness, healthy habits, job fulfillment, and et cetera as those who aren't lonely, they are less accurate in reading social situations, are less likely to exhibit willpower when necessary, and have health repercussions that become as much of a danger as obesity or smoking (like getting Alzheimer's or heart disease) ' and that's not to say anything about the subjective mental pain of feeling alone.

How does loneliness do this? To simplify a long story: loneliness makes us anxious and keeps us anxious for so long that the sheer tenseness of it all erodes us. Psychologically, lonely people burn so much more fuel paying attention to social cues and facial expressions and worrying about the sheer fact of being alone that the lack of calm effects cognition, executive control, and sleep. Physiologically, loneliness is similar to being in a fight-or-flight response all the time, which takes away energy and focus from repair and stress relief and puts them into power for the muscles and brain to run away or kill something; over time your body corrodes because it hasn't been paying attention to cellular upkeep. Both of these categories accumulate over time, creating loneliness's great hazard.

Why is someone lonely? What Cacioppo found is that it's not about actual social isolation. Someone has something honest to say but no one wants to hear it ' that's the heart of loneliness. Because this is so, a rise in loneliness means a rise in people not wanting to hear what others desperately need to say. Nowadays, fair-weather friends are becoming the norm.

If a relationship is simply an arithmetical question of cost vs benefit, then it isn't a relationship anymore: it's a business transaction with no human value. These fair-weather relationships operate very tightly within the cost benefit framework, and the moment the costs are perceived as outweighing the benefits, the contract is voided. The problem with viewing relationships as business transactions is that what we really want to say, the things that we really want to connect on and that will rid us of our loneliness, are things that are irrational, hyperbolic, melodramatic, or nonsensical. How we really feel rarely has real-world or personal value for the other person.

Technology is making loneliness painfully easy to accomplish. Before computers there was no choice but to see someone in person and be only with them. Now one can text or facebook or even call and think "Well I've talked to them a bit, so, I guess I don't need to see them", and they don't ' or they do yet stay disconnected by keeping to their devices or modern thoughts of sacrificing everything to become accomplished. Cacioppo's research found, however, that the person actually being there and attentive is what makes a connection matter. Levels of Oxytocin were far higher in subjects with face to face conversations, they stayed higher, and those subjects reported higher levels of connectedness and contentment later. Physical touch, such as a hug or a handshake, increases Oxytocin and reports of a pleasurable encounter.


Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can have a negative effect on a person's thoughts, behavior, feelings, world view and physical well-being. | Photo: |
Modern thought is no better. We have the pressure of being a self-made person or else we're viewed as weak. Going to therapy is viewed as being almost endearingly pathetic, and we're not pathetic enough for that, surely. Loners aren't viewed as thoughtful or solitary, but as weird, or about to crack. We have a wall-street mentality: show weakness and be cast out. Get the better job, the better car, the better spouse; beat your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends. Win. Be number one. Be the best. You're independent and strong. Don't be brought down by losers. Ditch 'em. Soar to the heights of success. And what has this cowboy, tough-guy ideology got us? Among other things, crippling sadness and life-threatening disease caused by loneliness.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle said in a TED talk "We're getting used to being alone together"; that is precisely the problem that technology and modern thought exacerbates. Technology and our masochistic desire to be self-made people make it easy to eschew connection with people that isn't completely desirable ' but that only serves to make us all fair-weather friends with no one to speak our gushy, nonsensical minds to. Turkle also said "We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy... We're creating the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship." For the good of everyone, we should be less worried about a bad conversation and more excited to hear someone's nonsense. It's what we want to say, so we should listen. We should read Turkle's comment differently for use as a focal point. Instead of being "alone together", we should be alone, together.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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