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Culture

An Epidemic of Loneliness

Even as we have myriad methods of communications, we're lonelier than ever before.

Arnold Ahlert · May 9, 2019

“All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?/ All the lonely people/ Where do they all belong?” —Eleanor Rigby, Lennon/McCartney, 1966

Perhaps there is no greater irony in modern day America than the reality that we have more ways of communicating than ever before even as millions of American are suffering from loneliness that has reached epidemic levels.

“Since the turn of the century, Americans have been dying from suicide, alcohol-related illnesses, and drug overdoses at a rate that has never before been seen,” reveals Francie Hart Broghammer, MD, chief psychiatry resident at UC Irvine Medical Center. “Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have aptly named these tragedies ‘Deaths of Despair.’ In fact, suicide is now the second leading cause of death for American teenagers and the tenth leading cause of death for Americans, overall.”

The numbers are sobering. Since 1999, half the states in the nation have seen a 30% increase in suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for those under 50, and each year since 2015, America’s life expectancy has declined. In 2017 alone, 7,000 more Americans committed suicide than died in car accidents, and a staggering 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses.

A 2018 survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older, published by global health-service company Cigna, reveals the scope of the problem:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%) or left out (47%).

  • One in four Americans (27%) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.

  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43%) and that they are isolated from others (43%).

  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20%) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18%).

  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.

  • Only around half of Americans (53%) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.

  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.

  • Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).

America is hardly an outlier. “Nearly half of Britons over 65 consider the television or a pet their main source of company,” reveals historian, economist, and demographer Neil Howe. “In Japan, there are more than half a million people under 40 who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months. In Canada, the share of solo households is now 28%. Across the European Union, it’s 34%.”

Psychologists are quick to emphasize that loneliness is not mitigated by the presence of other people. “One feels a sense of emptiness, kind of like an emptiness of the soul,” explains Health Partners psychologist Dr. Cheryl Bemel. “A wounded heart and lack of connection. A sense of disconnection.”

As the Cigna survey notes, social media usage is not an incisive factor, but one would have to be living under a rock not to notice the deleterious effect of cell phones. A society where people used to at least talk to one another — an exchange where various vocal inflections often communicated as much as the words themselves — has been replaced by one where texting rules and emoticons are used to convey subtext.

“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” explains author Jean M. Twenge.

Yet it’s not just phones. “For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out,” Twenge explains. “Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly — on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it.”

Those who built social media sites are equally aware of their potential pitfalls. In 2017, The Independent profiled Justin Rosenstein, who invented the “Like” button for Facebook, noting that Rosenstein made a concerted effort to limit his social media time — when he wasn’t completely avoiding it. “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences,” he stated.

As many Americans learned before and since, “best intentions” are the last thing on the minds of far too many tech titans and their Master of the Universe worldview.

Yet perhaps the biggest change that has afflicted America is routinely dismissed. “People who have lost religion and are coasting along on materialism find they have few interior resources to keep going when crisis hits,” writes columnist Andrew Sullivan. “They have no place of refuge, no spiritual safe space from which to gain perspective, no God to turn to.”

It is far worse than that. Since the so-called “God is dead” social revolution of the 1960s, the radical secularism that has now morphed into social-justice warrior-ism has, and continues to be, promoted by the American Left as the road to social utopia. And almost seamlessly, America replaced its religious leaders with lawyers and therapists. Thus what was once defined as “good and evil” has largely become “legal and illegal,” and “well and unwell,” in all their morally relative — and ostensibly guilt-relieving — glory.

Yet complete Godlessness — or worse, the idea that there is nothing bigger than The Self — doesn’t get it done. All the psychobabble in the world notwithstanding, human beings are hard-wired to wonder how they got here and where they are going, during their lives and afterwards.

As columnist Glenn Beaton astutely explains, “[Secularists] from Lenin to Pol Pot have hated real religion. In the end, they believe, there can be only one religion. They aim to make it theirs and they intend to be the high priests. They don’t intend to share their authority with God.”

Loneliness is more than likely the primary symptom afflicting those unable to reconcile the conflict between people of faith, who insist it cannot be replaced by radical secularism, and those who must dismiss people of faith as “bitter clingers” because faith — by definition — transcends government, and represents the greatest impediment to totalitarian control necessary to achieve socialist utopia.

Moreover, without transcendence, we get what we’ve got: a polarized nation consisting of tribes, each competing to assert moral authority that is neither moral nor authoritative.

Sadly, for far too many Americans, loneliness is the preferred option.

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