Thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies, never has it been so easy and inexpensive to reach — pretty much anywhere and at any time — family, friends, and colleagues. I regularly Facebook-message with a Sherpa friend who lives in Nepal; use Twitter to get real-time updates from an athlete I coach who lives in Australia; participate in an ongoing group email with friends whom I love and admire; and text my mom bitmoji while walking to my favorite coffee shop. The people of the world, and perhaps more important, the people of my world, are literally all at my fingertips. Yet at the same, I’ve been feeling a bit lonely.
It’s not that I’m sad, and certainly not clinically depressed. Overall, I’d actually say I’m pretty happy. It’s just that I’m increasingly noticing —somewhere between my chest and my gut — this sensation of something being not quite right, of something missing. It’s a feeling of being more, yet less, connected than ever. And it’s a feeling that appears to be becoming increasingly common.
John T. Cacioppo, a psychologist who studies loneliness and directs the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, recently told The Wall Street Journal that the rate of loneliness in America has doubled in the past few decades, up from 11 percent in the 1980s to around 40 percent in 2010. Other research, conducted by the AARP and Harris Polling, puts this number at between 30 and 35 percent for regular loneliness and as high as 72 percent for occasional loneliness.
This is worrisome for a number of reasons, perhaps none greater than all of the health problems with which loneliness is associated. These include, in no particular order: elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol; poor sleep quality; a 29 percent increase in risk for heart disease; a 32 percent increase in risk for stroke; accelerated cognitive decline; heightened systemic inflammation; and reduced immune function. Put all of this together, as researchers from Brigham Young University did for a comprehensive study that followed more than 300,000 people for an average of 7.5 years, and you’ll learn that the mortality risks associated with loneliness exceed those associated with obesity and physical inactivity and are comparable to those associated with smoking. Put differently, socially isolated people are twice as likely to die early versus those who have thriving social interactions. (These effects are particularly acute in elderly individuals, who tend to be the most physically isolated yet often most need in-person support for the activities of daily living.)
In addition to wreaking havoc on individuals, social isolation also contributes to the degradation of strong community ties. In researching his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger found that “lack of social support is twice as reliable at predicting PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] as the severity of the trauma [one experiences] itself.” Junger makes a compelling case that many soldiers are actually more satisfied at war than at home because when they are at war they are part of a tight-knit community. “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it,” he writes. “What they mind is not feeling necessary. [And] modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
As for how we arrived at such a state, Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and a licensed clinical psychologist, places the lion’s share of the blame on the very technologies that are supposed to connect us. “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies … suggest[ing] substitutions that put the real on the run,” she writes in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. “Digital devices,” she goes on, “offer the illusion [italics mine] of companionship without the demands of friendship.” In other words, although our shiny screens promote connections that can be enjoyable, stimulating, and beneficial, they do not substitute for the more substantial work of being physically present with another person; for it is likely because of this substantial work that physical connections are more rewarding.
Harvard psychiatry professors Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz come to a slightly different, yet complementary, conclusion. In their book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, they explain that an increased focused on “productivity” — and the “the cult of busyness” it has spawned — crowds out time for cultivating and sustaining meaningful relationships.
Reflecting on my own life, it becomes clear that I’ve fallen prey to both of these trends. Over the past year, I’ve been trying to “make it” (whatever that means) as a writer. I’ve pumped out around 50 magazine articles, started a newsletter, and coauthored a book—all solitary endeavors (my coauthor lives across the country, and on the rare occasions we were together I felt wonderful). While I’ve grown my virtual network by something like 1000 percent, I’ve spent less time in-person with other human beings. Instead of meeting up with running buddies at a centrally located trailhead, for instance, I’ve run solo out my front door to save commute time. I’ve even frequently opted not to leave my apartment to work out of a coffee shop because I was nervous to interrupt my groove (this sounds so pathetic, but it’s true). In other words, I too often chose productivity over people. This isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes you’ve just got to put your head down and get the work done. Not to mention, I’m a pretty big introvert, so I’d often rather be in my own mind than interacting with other people. It’s just that my personal balance shifted to an extreme without my even noticing it.
Surely a large part of, if not the entire, reason I didn’t notice is because of all my digitally-driven friendships, a few of which I mentioned in the opening. But I’m continuing to realize what Turkle writes: Digital friends will never live up to the real thing; if our balance shifts too far to the digital, we’re liable to end up feeling alone together.
The good news is that there’s a straightforward fix for both myself and anyone else who may be feeling the same way. We’ve just got to make a point of it to be together together, at least more often. This starts with reminding ourselves that as great as technology and online social networks are, these things augment, but do not replace, actual in-the-flesh social connection. As for the latter, let’s relinquish just a bit of our obsession with productivity in favor of making coffee dates with friends (and holding them to it), hosting Saturday-night dinners, scheduling lake walks, and starting or joining book clubs. (Guys, this means us, too. Because men typically don’t do these things we tend to be even lonelier.) In the words of author Caroline Webb, even something as simple as “turning transactions into interactions” when dealing with strangers (as in, lift your head up from your phone in the checkout line) can go a long way. And for those of us with significant others, how about implementing periods of phones/iPads/computers “off and out of the room” in the evenings. While it is true that forging intimate bonds takes more time and energy than sending an email or text, the benefits of doing so — both for us as individuals as well as for the communities we live in — seem worth it.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the forthcoming book Peak Performance. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.