America's Loneliness Epidemic

As soon as people make money, they seem to purchase loneliness. – David Brooks


America is currently suffering from a nearly invisible epidemic: loneliness. 46% of adults say they are lonely.[1] Even more shocking, the average American says that they have zero close friends to confide in.[2]

It’s counter-intuitive that a society more connected by technology should feel so isolated. However, while we may appear more connected on the surface, the type and quality of connection matter.

Social bonds formed by our tribal ancestors don’t exist to the same extent in cushy American neighborhoods with fenced-off houses. Even in cities, people spend massive chunks of their day alone.  

Yet as an extremely social species we need each other very badly. We crave a sense of tribal belonging in order to feel happy. Why? Because our brains developed over hundreds of thousands of years living in tight-knit tribes. As hunter-gatherers we spent our time together in close contact and almost no time alone. Being alone meant almost certain death.

Our brains, therefore, reward us for being social. Key “happiness chemicals,” such as oxytocin, are released in the brain during social bonding, like physical contact and shared laughter. Without these chemicals, our mental health suffers. Insufficient social connection has in fact been more highly linked to premature death than obesity, and may be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.[3] In fact, a feeling of isolation activates the same neurological pathways as physical pain.[4]

What’s changed?

We live in isolating conditions and try to remedy the distance with the Internet. But technology can both facilitate and isolate. Just think how on-demand food delivery services have radically changed the way we eat. As society gets more automated, our social interactions become more scarce and transactional. 

Many people have trouble being alone with their own thoughts so they ironically do what makes them even lonelier: they foster superficial connections on social media or online communities. This helps them feel “connected” but they get none of the social nourishment that we’ve evolved to get through in-person interactions. 

The result is that modern society can be deceptively isolating. Without the same level of social contact and support, many of our psychological needs are neglected. Research has shown that as urbanization increases, so too does the rate of depression.[5]


Enriched Environments

Part of the problem is a society that encourages personal achievement above collective cooperation. The modern world champions individualism and encourages us to trumpet our own personal accomplishments. We naturally tend to isolate ourselves from others and focus on our own ambitions. But it’s important to remember that even though we might not need each other to acquire food, say, our biology still craves meaningful social interaction.

A revealing study sought to determine whether socialization might have an effect on addiction, allowing rats to self-administer cocaine. Those rats left alone in a cage became heavy drug users, while rats in so-called “enriched” social environments with lots of other mice only mildly indulged in the cocaine.[6] In other words, social isolation can lead to addictive and harmful behaviors.

Just like the rats in these experiments, we need to feed our brains a healthy dose of social bonding in a tribe-like setting (e.g. a sports team, workplace or book group), cultivating meaningful in-person relationships where we can connect on an emotional level. In doing so, we’re helping our brain get what it needs to produce “happiness chemicals” that motivate us and prevent a host of mental illnesses.

Meditation can also help with feelings of loneliness[7]and encourage us to become more compassionate toward others. By cultivating a caring attitude and actively seeking out socially enriched environments in which our minds can thrive, we can beat the loneliness epidemic. 

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[3]Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. "Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review." Perspectives on Psychological Science 10.2 (2015): 227-237.

[4]Eisenberger, Naomi I. "The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 13.6 (2012): 421.

[5]Srivastava, Kalpana. "Urbanization and mental health." Industrial psychiatry journal 18.2 (2009): 75.

[6]Puhl, Matthew D., et al. "Environmental enrichment protects against the acquisition of cocaine self-administration in adult male rats, but does not eliminate avoidance of a drug-associated saccharin cue." Behavioural pharmacology 23.1 (2012): 43.

[7]Creswell, J. David, et al. "Mindfulness-based stress reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial." Brain, behavior, and immunity 26.7 (2012): 1095-1101.


Liam McClintockComment