Loneliness and being alone

The problem of loneliness in the modern world is well known. The observation that the more connected we become to humans all over the world through technology, the more lonely we seem to feel, has become almost a cliche. The billion dollar social media industry is predicated on making us feel more connected, but we cannot help but notice that the more we benefit from its services, the lonelier we feel. Our addiction to solving our problems with money has even spawned a ‘rent-a-friend’ industry. Isn't it obvious that such developments only serve to deepen our feelings of loneliness? We know there is a problem, but we can't help making it worse.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is an emotion felt by almost everyone at some points in their life. It must have conferred an evolutionary advantage or it would have been bred out. Actually, it's not hard to see why we are programmed to need human connection. Humans emerged from Africa and conquered the world, not because we were the fastest, strongest, or biggest, but because of our brains. Intelligence, though, is only effective when it's used to coordinate groups of people. In order to survive and thrive we needed to form close bonds with our fellows. The feelings of joy and satisfaction we find in successful relationships are the evolutionary carrot, loneliness is the stick.

The problem we have today is that the market economy provides us with ways to coordinate with an unprecedented network of people without developing personal bonds. In Milton Friedman's famous example, by simply buying a pencil we are coordinating our actions with hundreds of people on three different continents who we will never meet. The problem is that we are connecting as producers and consumers, but we remain human beings. We provide ourselves with food, shelter and an infinity of consumer goods, but without satisfying our basic needs for real human connection.

Being together and being alone

The modern world provides us with ever more opportunities to replace personal with impersonal communication, or no communication whatsoever. Imagine you visit the same grocer, baker, and butcher each week. There's a good chance that you will deliver a friendly rapport with most of them, and a real possibility that one will become a true friend. You can visit the same supermarket your entire life without forming even a superficial connection with any of the thousands of assistants you come across. If you do your shopping on the internet, even the theoretical possibility of forming a bond is gone.

Here’s where it gets uncomfortable. Why do we keep making choices that increase our loneliness? Don't we want to be happy? Part of the answer is that we are prioritizing things that don't really make us happy. What does it help us to save 30 minutes by shopping online if we spend it watching TV? However, there is more to it than that. By shunning communication with others, we are pursuing another need that in America has become an obsession: autonomy. As Rousseau taught us, if we conceptualize liberty as the independence of the individual, absolute liberty can only be achieved at the cost of shunning human contact altogether. All interaction with others requires us to modify and adjust our actions. The deeper the connection we have to another person, the less free we are just to do whatever we want.

On the one hand, our deepest emotions are crying out to us to connect with others and punishing us with loneliness when we don’t. At the same time, we shun human contact because it chastens and constrains us. Relationships take time to develop, but the constriction of social interaction is felt straight away. As so often in life, we choose to avoid short term irritation at the cost of long term misery. In a sense, we are becoming addicted to being alone.

We can take this parallel further. It is possible, indeed normal, to enjoy being alone, without feeling lonely. A happily married mother relishes the chance to curl up with a good book. The addict, on the other hand, doesn’t actually enjoy being alone at all. He or she is avoiding connection, not seeking solitude. A person who enjoys eating also enjoys exercise; a person who enjoys sex also enjoys a good conversation. Similarly, someone who really enjoys their own company enjoys that of others and vice versa. Rebuilding the skills we need to reach out to others and form real human connections has the surprising benefit of helping us to enjoy being alone as well. Modern life makes it too easy to become addicted to isolation, but we can choose to rediscover the true joys of being together, and being alone.

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23 Aug 2017