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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Loneliness Results from an Isolating Society, Not Individual Failures to Pursue Connection

We’re often told that picking up the phone and calling someone can help with the epidemic of loneliness. But the focus on individual efforts simply distracts us from deeper questions about how our society is organized.

The holidays can be a mixed bag. As CNN tells us, “Could the most magical time of year be so full of loneliness, anger and stress?” Well, yes, it could. The author, psychiatrist Dr. Neha Chaudhary, notes that two-thirds of people report loneliness during the holidays according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Chaudhary goes on to explain the various reasons people may feel lonely—tensions that arise during family gatherings, lack of ability to visit loved ones during the holidays, missing deceased loved ones, and so forth. Chaudhary explains what to do when one feels lonely: identify the feeling, try to pinpoint the trigger, be compassionate to yourself, and reach out to others (text someone, reach out to a stranger). The rest of the advice centers on managing one’s own feelings and expectations and on setting boundaries with others. When all else fails, “turn to a professional for help.” This seems fairly reasonable and unlikely to be harmful. 

The New York Times just published an opinion video by Adam Westbrook and Emily Holzknecht on “The Life Span of Loneliness.” It’s a five-minute video of snippets of people talking about loneliness. Some mention being busy single parents who lack a partner to share their feelings with or who want to be cared for instead of always caring for others. One person mentioned not having children and how this meant they must have “asked for” loneliness. Another mentioned isolation from a spouse who was glued to social media. For others it was illness or spending too much time on their careers or simply feeling lonely in a crowded room. The reasons and circumstances around each person’s loneliness vary, but the conclusion of the article leads to a recommendation that’s similar to the CNN article: reach out and call someone. Connect. It can help so much.

There seems to be an undue focus on phoning a friend in discussion of the loneliness problem. As I wrote previously, earlier this year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report on loneliness and recommended many individual-level solutions while offering vague policy recommendations for institutions. In social media videos, he warned about the negative health impacts of loneliness and concluded that people ought to phone a friend, invite someone over for a meal, be present when around others, and try to be of service to others. These are completely unobjectionable—but, again, they are individual-level interventions, almost like personal medical advice, that keep the focus squarely on us instead of the systemic causes of loneliness.

Here’s another example, also from the Times. “There’s no shame in feeling lonely” is the headline of a recent article by Christina Caron. The article discusses one woman who works long hours and lives alone and will be spending the holiday caring for someone else’s dog when she would clearly prefer to be with others. What’s the lesson for us to learn here? It can be shameful to feel lonely. But remember, it’s human to feel lonely, and everyone feels lonely sometimes. This is true. The Surgeon General is quoted to remind us that feeling lonely is as normal as feeling hunger or thirst. (Oh, well when you put it that way, maybe loneliness isn’t so bad! It’s physiologic!) What follows is more self-help advice. Make an effort to “cultivate your relationships.” Be honest with others about your needs. Again, pick up the phone and call someone! The best advice from the piece might actually be to join a group of other humans who share your interests and to volunteer. But overall, in these stories, the focus always seems to be on individual-level management of feelings and emotions—and to take the problem to a professional when things get out of hand.

In a hyper-individualistic society where we’re constantly told to exercise personal responsibility, it’s not surprising that we are told to manage our emotions this way. And for those who can’t self-manage, and for whom mental healthcare is either unaffordable or undesirable, there’s life coaching to pull us out of our rut. As Ron Purser detailed in Current Affairs earlier this year, there’s a massively profitable life coaching industry that will help you be self-made and that will offer you pseudo-solutions to your deepest emotional problems as a replacement for systemic solutions:

“Why do people hire life coaches—paid strangers—in times of need? The cultural pressures to become a self-made individual have intensified at the same time that sources of social support that were once the domain of families, friends, churches, and other civic and fraternal organizations have dramatically weakened. In the midst of what has been characterized as a “loneliness epidemic” in American society, even friendship is being commodified and outsourced to the market. Founded by SoulCycle entrepreneur Elizabeth Cutler, Peoplehood is a new “social wellness” company offering a “connection product” that trains empathic “guides” to lead and facilitate “gathers.” Commodified friendship and life coaching are symptomatic offspring of a society driven by competitive individualism and plagued by social media comparisons and increasing isolation.”

He concludes:

“This huckster culture propagates a doctrine of continuous self-betterment, quick fixes, and inward-looking makeover schemes while blinding us to the systemic and structural causes of distress and cultural malaise. We have lost stable social anchors, which leads to festering insecurities and personal anxieties. To forge a self-made identity, we are ever more reliant on experts and the faux intimacy of commodified service providers, which the life coach will cheerfully provide.”

If the liberal media will instruct you to manage your emotions, and the life-coaching industry will sell you a product to help you manage your life, conservative media will focus on a different but familiar bogeyman: the decrepit American family. Yes, Fox News blames the holiday loneliness problem on the decline of “the family.” “Family dynamics have faltered,” we are told, “leaving us to grapple with the toll it takes on our overall happiness.” The author, Dr. Nicole Saphier, a radiologist by training, elaborates:

“In recent decades, there has been a noticeable shift in the United States away from the traditional family unit. Evolving societal norms and changing economic structures have all contributed to this transformation. Factors such as delayed marriage and a rise in single-parent households have resulted in changed household dynamics often resulting in less dependence on internal familial support and more on external sources. 

Recent polling from Pew Research shows that the public cannot even agree on what the family unit is, and 40% feel pessimistic about its future. Tragically, more Americans now point to their jobs (71%) or friends (61%) for fulfillment rather than to having kids (26%) or being married (23%). 

In a recent speech, Dr. Kevin Roberts, president of The Heritage Foundation and former CEO of the Texas Public Policy, asked, “Can we really be surprised that a nation dismissing family bonds finds itself in a crisis of loneliness, isolation, addiction and mental illness?” 

[…]

Now, more than ever, America needs the family. We need to restore strong, loving, selfless families to their rightful place. And believe me, when we come together at the dining room table for Christmas dinner, it will be worth it. Family is always worth it.”

I have written about why the family is not really a great institution and why, instead of focusing on “family values,” we need to focus on creating the kind of society that allows people to develop the relationships they want and to be in living situations in which they can receive the love and care that they need—and I think few of us could actually say with a straight face that the problem of half of American adults feeling lonely is due to the fact that many of us don’t fit into some conservative fantasy of a 1950s sitcom. But does anyone want to talk about structural factors that contribute to loneliness?

In one example opinion piece, structural factors are acknowledged but packaged within a framework that still focuses on individuals. NYT opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece a few months ago about how Britain was tackling loneliness with a “minister of loneliness.” He described how the minister “oversees public-private partnerships that collectively knit millions of people together with programs like nature walks, songwriting workshops and community litter pickups.” But even this effort makes the “cure” seem individual-based, as if we need to simply go back in time to do things we used to do but don’t (or, to use sociologist Robert Putnam’s words, that we need to build our “social capital”). Kristof continues, “The steps to tackle loneliness aren’t grand, high-tech or expensive. In fact, one of the strategies is simply to get people back into old-fashioned patterns like eating meals together, holding parties and volunteering to help one another out.” But when it comes to underlying structural factors that have caused changes in our “old-fashioned patterns,” the analysis stays relatively superficial. In a kind of evolutionary psychology take, Kristof notes that because our modern society offers so many resources, we don’t need to sleep “eight to a hut” anymore. In this way, “wealth drives us toward solitude.” This makes loneliness seem a bit inevitable—an unfortunate side effect of human progress—and if something is seen as inevitable, how likely are you to propose major structural changes to address it? Kristof does mention social media and its negative psychological effects but stops short of recommending that we do something, say, about social media or screens in general being made purposely addictive. The “infrastructure” changes mentioned in the article are parks and libraries. No argument here—we could certainly use more parks and libraries. But this just scratches the surface of the problem.

A number of factors can make it hard for people to make and maintain adequate social lives and feel connected to others in meaningful ways. 

  • Lack of effective rapid transit to go places to see people
  • Urban development that has caused hyper-dependence on private automobiles (which keeps people atomized)
  • Lack of affordable housing (ever thought about how a lack of housing prevents people from having a relationship or having sex?)
  • Lack of social housing
  • Lack of public places to hang out for free (and hostile architecture in public places where one might hang out and meet others)
  • Lack of affordable child care
  • Lack of time or energy because of too much time spent at a single or multiple jobs 
  • Lack of affordable healthcare to address basic physical and emotional needs (which can hinder people’s general ability to function and feel their best)
  • Lack of money or time to join social, political, arts, or sports groups
  • Access to too much addictive content on social media or the internet

Another example, this one personal: at both the current and previous apartments where I live, there’s effectively no guest parking. This makes it impossible to have visitors. In the previous place, the apartment complex did not even have enough parking for the residents, let alone guests—you simply had to park in a fire lane and hope your car didn’t get towed. The complex was surrounded by private property and had no street or public parking. As it was located in the suburbs in a sprawl-heavy Texas city, there was no rapid transit to speak of, so no one could ride a bus to get there. 

The place I currently live houses—ironically—a private parking lot within the building. But practically all of the parking slots are for pay only. A very limited number are available for daytime guest parking. When discussing the parking situation, the property manager had this clever punchline as the explanation for why there wasn’t free overnight guest parking: “That’s because we prioritize our residents!” she exclaimed. This wasn’t the winning phrase she thought it was. You aren’t prioritizing your residents if you do not care that their friends and loved ones have no reliable way to visit them. What you are prioritizing, clearly, is profit.

These problems are not individual-level problems. Changing them requires policy and political will. Simply put, we have to create an entirely different society which prioritizes human social life along with human and ecological well-being. Doing this requires ending the prioritization of private profit in our society. As Malaika Jabali points out in her new introduction to socialism, It’s Not You, It’s Capitalism, thinking we are stuck with the bad features of our capitalist society—and with the loneliness and social isolation that result from it—is a lot like feeling stuck in a bad relationship:

[W]e’ve been convinced that we’re just not trying hard enough in the relationship. We need to hustle more, sacrifice more hours and more time, find more streams of income, and we’ll finally see how good our lives can be. You’re doing everything you can to make this relationship work. But I can assure you, it’s not you, it’s capitalism.”

This holiday season, let’s stop talking about loneliness as if it were a problem of personal emotional inadequacy. While there’s nothing wrong with self-help in and of itself, we cannot allow it to become the focus of the discussion on loneliness. The United States is a hyper-individualistic, faux-meritocratic (your ZIP code or level of family wealth can determine much about your life trajectory, it’s not just about how “hard” you work), competitive, and grossly unequal society in which levels of poverty are embarrassingly high, life expectancy lags behind other industrialized countries, millions lack basic healthcare and housing and food, and our political options for the highest office in the land in 2024 will, in all likelihood, boil down to Con Artist Donald vs Genocide Joe. This is not the time to hunker down and work on ourselves while tuning everything else out. Please call someone if you need to. But also remember that millions of people calling each other is in no way a solution to this deep social malaise.

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