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Michael Bader: We are all alone together

We have an epidemic of loneliness in our society. And just as we launch public campaigns intended to improve our health and reduce obesity, so, too, do we need a public campaign to correct the scourge of isolation.

A recent article in the journal, American Psychologist, lays out the tragic demographics of this crisis. One quarter of the U.S. population lives alone. Over 50 percent of adults are unmarried, 20 percent have never married, and, of those that do, 40 percent divorce. And some surveys of intact marriages reveal that a third of them are somehow “discordant.”

Between 20 and 43 percent of U.S. adults over 60 experience frequent or intense loneliness. In a study supported by the National Science Foundation, called the General Social Survey, researchers found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985.

A quarter of those surveyed report no — that’s zero — confidantes. Further, the average number of people Americans feel that they can talk to about “important matters” has fallen from three to two.

It is well-known that people who are socially disconnected are more likely to become depressed and physically ill.

It is well known that people who are socially disconnected are more likely to become depressed and physically ill.

They’re more likely to miss work. They are less able to tolerate and manage stress and their cardiovascular and immune systems are at greater risk to be compromised. The reason for this is that close attachments immunize us against the physical and emotional hardships of the world.

In an age of digital connectivity, it might seem as if email, texting, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have solved the problem of loneliness. But the “friends” orbiting out there in your digital universe aren’t the ones that matter when it comes to health and happiness.

The vital friendships, the people with whom you touch, laugh, and cry, the people who you feel see you and understand you — these are the relationships that have the greatest impact on mental and physical health.

Feeling disconnected

In today’s world of hyperconnectivity, we are often quite alone in the presence of others. We are electronically tethered to others but isolated nevertheless. As Sherry Turkle said in a recent book, we are “all alone together.”

Feelings of being disconnected from others also get reinforced by the various unresponsive bureaucracies that we depend on.

People feel disconnected waiting for hours in a phone queue for technical support, dealing with endless voicemail menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician.

They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests. They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare.

And too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services, the IRS, FEMA, building permit and city planning departments, or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

When someone feels that the world is indifferent to his or her needs, that person will feel painfully alone, disconnected and angry.

We live in a culture that prizes individualism and a market based economy that encourages an ethos of “every man (or woman) for him or herself.”

The price, however, of economic productivity is loneliness and social disconnectedness. Such states are harmful to the individual mind and body, as well as to the culture.

Needs for attachment and interdependence are fundamental to human beings and our society too often violates our basic nature.

It’s easy to respond to feelings of helplessness by scapegoating someone else. Many people blame government, but we also tend to blame “the other” — groups that are different from us by virtue of race, gender or country of origin.

Demagogues can make use of such resentments; we see it on the news every day.

We need to make loneliness and social isolation a public health issue, raising the alarm and advocating for programs and initiatives that aim to reduce it. And we need to tap into the same wellspring of compassion and altruism that emerges after every major disaster.

People need to be attached and interdependent. Let’s make it possible to fulfill these basic needs without the catalyst of a major disaster.

Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.


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