Jennifer Grygiel teaches hundreds of college students each week and connects with millions on television, yet still has suffered from feeling socially isolated.
After a few years teaching social media at Syracuse University, Grygiel (who uses they/them pronouns) noticed their social circle was shrinking. They then made a conscious decision to split time between their remote cozy campus in upstate New York and a more vibrant community nearly four hours away in a bustling Brooklyn neighborhood.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I was feeling so alone that it was terrifying,” Grygiel says. “I said to myself, ‘I have to make this work.’ Now, I have two communities where I really need to invest in both.” Grygiel says despite the fact that they have a great job, it’s worth regularly making the long commute to spend time in a bigger city with larger cultural, art and LGBTQ scenes.
As many of Shareable’s articles on our current loneliness crisis show, the antidote to loneliness and social isolation is community involvement and engagement, whether that manifests as civic engagement, more solidarity at work, or more informal social connections. Even though we live in a technologically advanced world that can put us in touch with anyone almost anywhere, research reveals that we are more disconnected than ever. One study showed the average American has just one friend, down from three in 1985.
Republican Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who has written extensively about loneliness, says while we’re more prosperous, better informed and more connected, we’re also unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled. “Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness when only a recovery of rootedness can help us,” he says. “We’re hyperconnected and we’re disconnected.”
Whether it’s due to our socioeconomic status, political beliefs, the rise of social media and smartphones, experts say social isolation is not only a serious health problem but also a societal crisis. This epidemic of loneliness has probably already undermined our communities, civic life, and economy. For instance, the disturbing divisiveness and anti-democratic impulses we currently see in public life in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere could be partly attributable to increased levels of social isolation. Things could get worse if not addressed.
Taking loneliness seriously
There are no quick-fix solutions to loneliness, but governments are starting to take the issue more seriously. It’s so serious, in fact, that the United Kingdom last year appointed a ‘Minister for Loneliness’ after a report in 2017 revealed that more than nine million people often or always feel lonely. China, Denmark, Japan and other countries are reporting increased loneliness levels. And the authors of a recent Oxford University article found that 49 percent of the time people spent participating in civic activities was solitary.
Battling isolation will take a collective effort requiring us to become more engaged, empathetic, and even a bit vulnerable, says Dr. Survat Bhargave, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist who has written at length about social isolation. “We need to feel like we belong. We need social connectedness. This is why we are here on this earth,” says Bhargave during a phone interview, his voice rising for emphasis. “But I know for some that it’s easier said than done.”
Shareable is exploring solutions to our crisis of social isolation, loneliness, and civic disconnection through a series of stories. One details how reconnecting people in civic projects encourages discussion, debate, and collaboration. Another suggests we need to band together to create a climate of justice. A third describes how simply sharing a meal with strangers can help us connect with new communities.
Why are these efforts needed? Because we have fewer relationships and our disengagement with others is increasing. For example, nearly half of the respondents to a Cigna survey of 20,000 Americans last year said they either sometimes or always feel alone or left out. The groups most affected by loneliness and social isolation include those making less than $30,000 a year, African Americans and Hispanics, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last year. Another finding of the Pew study: nearly three in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with their family life or feel lonely all or most of the time.
It is possible to feel lonely and not be socially isolated (for instance, if you have unrewarding relationships) and be socially isolated but not feel lonely. Loneliness usually describes the feeling that can result from a gap between someone’s desired level of social connections and their actual experience. Social isolation occurs when people have very few contacts, something that may not be a problem for all who experience it.
“Bowling Alone” author and Harvard sociology professor Robert Putnam points out that we interact less frequently with our family and neighbors than our grandparents did. We also tend to make fewer friends, belong to fewer organizations and support fewer causes than previous generations.
“We just allow ourselves to think that many other things are far more important and we’ve taken our eyes off of the ball in investing in human relationships,” former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said during a conference last year. “And that has consequences.”
How social media contributes
We can look to a multitude of reasons why we are less socially connected. Social media is one obvious example. While platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube give us a sense of information and connectivity, our addiction to technology is compromising our interpersonal connections, some experts argue.
“The social fabric of our community is being obliterated,” says Grygiel, who adds that the term “friend” has been compromised due to technology. While users may have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on social networks, a majority of those people are merely acquaintances. Technology is actually weakening our social ties and creating artificial distance between people, Grygiel says.
“The art of intimacy is being lost,” says Shireen Mitchell, a New York-based technology analyst, diversity strategist and social media expert who has spoken extensively nationally about isolation. She believes technology, especially social media, is a major reason why loneliness is growing, especially among young people. Members of Generation Z from ages 18 to 22, and Millennials ages 23 to 37 reported feeling the loneliest, according to the Cigna survey.
Grygiel encourages her students to make more interpersonal connections instead of Facetiming each other or using social media. “I don’t want them waking up saying, ‘I’m lonely’ because they spent too much time on their screens instead of learning how to be sociable,” Grygiel says.
The Syracuse instructor points to MIT professor, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other as one guide to these issues. In the bestselling book, Turkle writes that technology “makes it easy to communicate when we wish, and to disengage at will,” whereas face-to-face interaction requires more engagement and makes more demands. Young people prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the internet, says Turkle, and are drawn to connections that seem low risk and always available.
While technology may offer us the freedom to connect with people and work from anywhere, “we are also prone to being lonely everywhere,” Turkle concludes in her book. “Relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”
Even casual interaction is decreasing, Grygiel says. Instead of chatting with others sharing their experience of waiting in line or riding on the bus or train, many people now tend to look down at their phones. Even the experience of commuting by bus, train or single-occupant car can add to isolation. For each extra 10 minutes added to their trips, Putnam says, commuters had at least 10 percent fewer social connections, leading to increased isolation and overall unhappiness.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to form bonds. How do we know what we have in common?” Grygiel said. “Seriously, we need to put the phones down and say ‘Hi,’ to each other.”
Changing demographics, changing neighborhoods
Our neighborhoods and communities aren’t what they used to be. As a result, there are more lonely people in America.
Single-individual households now make up 28 percent of all households, a dramatic increase since 1965, when they were 15 percent. What’s vanishing are blocks of close-knit families that would have daily interaction. These families protected the neighborhood, looked out for each other’s homes, mowed and plowed neighbors’ lawns and sidewalks without asking, held barbecues together and practically helped raise each other’s kids.
African Americans are most affected by this trend, as they are more likely than any other ethnic group to live alone, putting their households more at risk for loneliness and feelings of social isolation.
Allison Abrams, a New York-based licensed psychotherapist and contributing writer for several national publications and websites recently wrote that as civic engagement declines, so does civil engagement. Smartphones have helped erode civility, and it’s become common to ignore emails and texts instead of responding promptly, she says: “This type of dismissive behavior has become the norm. And norms are what shape societies.”
Americans are more likely than people in other countries to move from one city to another for a job or other reasons. But moving multiple times to pursue a career and financial security can leave people lonely and unfulfilled.
Abrams suggests Americans’ readiness to pull up their roots and relocate is connected to the American idea of rugged individualism. She cites the point sociologist Philip Slater’s four-decades-old book, “The Pursuit of Loneliness” made: The root of disconnection in America is what Slater called “the collective obsession with the success of the individual.”
Identifying groups most at risk
Late last year, a team led by health expert Dr. Dilip Jeste, a psychiatry and neurosciences professor at the University of California, San Diego published a loneliness study that found a majority of participants had “moderate to high levels of loneliness.”
Three age groups in particular were most affected. Study participants in their 20s, mid-50s, and mid-80s were more likely to experience “moderate to severe loneliness,” in part due to increased stress related to life transitions that often occur around these ages, he said. The spike in disconnectedness at certain ages points to an important distinction between loneliness, which may be temporary, and social isolation, which can last for weeks, maybe even years, Jeste says.
“So, if I’m feeling lonely, feeling isolated, I need to think about why,” he says. “Is it because I don’t have people around me, or that people are around, but I can’t connect with them?”
While Americans are living in a period of extraordinary prosperity, it’s also a time of unprecedented upheaval and anxiety, wrote Sasse, the junior Republican Senator from Nebraska in his recent book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other. “There is a terrible mismatch here.” One reason for this could be the inequitable distribution of economic gains. Although the U.S. economy has more than doubled in real terms since 1980, incomes since then have stagnated for the bottom half of the population even as they more than tripled for the top 1%.
“Our communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposefulness than ever before,” he says. “We’re in crisis.”
Possible solutions to social isolation
Avoiding or addressing social isolation and loneliness is possible. Putnam encourages people to become more social, join more community groups and volunteer. The American Psychological Association says schools should put a greater emphasis on social skills training.
The group also says community planners should ensure large public spaces include shared spaces for gatherings and interactions, and doctors should check for a patient’s social connectedness when conducting medical screenings. Also, those planning their financial future upon retiring also need to prepare for the social aspects of their retirement.
For those feeling socially isolated, Bhargave, the Atlanta psychiatrist, said that instead of taking the “How do I fit in?” approach to gain a group of friends, maybe try focusing about 80 percent on the “one or two people who might be good friends for you,” to be socially successful.
By “putting those energies” on identifying those connections, the people you do engage with can be held to a more meaningful standard friendship, says Bhargave, who expands more on the concept in his latest book, “A Moment of Insight.” “Put 80 percent on who those people might be, and put in the work to foster the friendships,” he suggested. “And then you can choose if you want to expand and have more friends.”
In his book, Sen. Sasse says Americans don’t have the “community thickness” like we used to. He thinks we want to be a part of something bigger — and to do so, we need to connect in more meaningful ways.
“What we need are new habits of mind and heart. We need new practices of neighborliness,” the senator said. “We need to get our hands dirty replenishing the soil that nourishes rooted, purposeful lives.”
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