How Can We Stop America's Deadly Epidemic of Loneliness?
We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness. —Albert Schweitzer
Loneliness is a political issue—at least, it should be. Loneliness and isolation are killing us. Lest you think this is metaphoric, the statistics are chilling. In a study funded by the National Science Foundation and reported in the American Sociological Review, researchers from Duke University and the University of Arizona conducted 1,500 face-to-face interviews with a random sample of American adults and found that one quarter of the respondents admitted that they had no one with whom they could talk about their personal troubles or successes. If you excluded family members, this number increased to a little over 50%.
More than half of Americans have no one with whom they share their troubles and joys. Studies of elderly people only underline this pattern more dramatically. Loneliness is not some soft existential problem of the “worried well.” Research about the health effects of social isolation concludes that those older adults without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. Loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter if the person feels lonely for loneliness to have a harmful effect. While the subjective experience of loneliness increases the risk of death by 26%, it is also true that if people don’t feel lonely, but are objectively isolated, their mortality still increases.
Several recent studies have furthered our awareness of the pathologies caused by the breakdown of connection and community. According to a recent report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, white, uneducated, middle- and working-class adults between the ages of 45 and 54 are now dying at higher rates than ever before, deaths involving suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and liver disease. The stresses of economic stagnation, along with the increased availability of prescription painkillers seem to be two factors behind his increase. The authors also suggest that hopelessness and the helplessness of social isolation—the breakdown of a sense of meaning and purpose—were common threads in the people at increased risk. As Johann Hari documents in his book, Chasing the Scream, it is emotional trauma and social disconnectedness—rather than the compellingly addictive power or “hook” of certain substances themselves—that offer the best explanations of the causes of addiction today.
Veterans are a special group at risk. Joseph Bobrow, in his new book, Waking Up From War, details how broken communities at home, and the fragmentation of caregiving institutions, continually fail returning veterans afflicted by PTSD. Safe and supportive communities of meaning, on the other hand—such as those provided by Bobrow’s group, the Coming Home Project—offer the best treatment for vets, their families and even their caregivers. Isolation and self-blame are too often the experience of these damaged warriors as they return home seeking help for the psychic, as well as the the physical injuries of war.
Psychotherapists have long known that abandonment and neglect inflict every bit as much trauma on a developing child as more overt and violent forms of abuse. The absence of a secure attachment leads to disabling feelings of insecurity and self-hatred. Connection is a vital nutrient fuelling human development.
Researchers and theorists have pointed to many factors that could be causing this depressing trend. The decline of social and community organizations, along with volunteerism, the increasingly long work days and commutes, the growth of two-career and single parent families, the privatizing effects of television, the decline in direct personal conversations caused by social media and the Internet, are all possible contributors to the increased social isolation so frequently cited by researchers. And lurking behind all of these phenomena are competitive individualism and the myth of meritocracy that appear so central in a culture like ours dominated by the ethos of the capitalist marketplace. The American ideal of individualism creates a dog-eat-dog world view that causes a toxic brew of social isolation and loneliness and is greatly worsened by the self-doubt and depressive self-criticism caused by the meritocratic notion that one’s station in life reflects one’s intrinsic value.
So, isolation and loneliness are on the rise, and are making people sick, addicted and left to fester alone in miseries caused by economic stagnation and anxiety at home and in conflicts abroad. What are we doing about it? Enlightened thinkers and activists in the non-profit philanthropic and social welfare worlds are doing a lot to practically treat the damage that isolation causes. Programs for veterans, like Bobrow’s, and 12-step groups that offer the healing power of community are cases in point.
But treating symptoms is not enough. We need to find ways to speak to the heart of what has become a raging epidemic of loneliness in our culture. In the face of such an epidemic, I would argue that political progressives have to figure out how to talk about it publically and address it politically, even as we find better ways of healing the symptoms it produces.
Supporting the expansion of labor unions has to be one vital plank in any such platform seeking to counteract the atomization of social life. Unions have historically demonstrated their power to provide experiences of solidarity and to speak to communal interests, yet union membership has steadily declined over the last 50 years, a trend fostered by the loss of jobs overseas as well as the overt anti-union agenda of conservative groups and powerful corporate interests. Still, a revitalized union movement would be a huge step in addressing the problems of loneliness and isolation.
Progressives should make alleviating loneliness an important and explicit part of everything they say and every program they propose. We know from focus groups, pollsters, psychologists like Drew Westen, and linguists like George Lakoff that people process information in non-rational ways. Telling people the objective truth about the political and economic causes of income disparities, economic stagnation, and the collapse of the American Dream of middle-class mobility and security is no guarantee that people will believe you if you fail to take account of a range of emotional biases, fears and motivations that regularly defeat or discount such rational explanations.
The pain of loneliness and the need to belong are two such emotions. One of our mottos should be that “we stand against loneliness and isolation.” I think progressives should talk about these feelings and make this point directly and explicitly. Loneliness is a public health issue and everyone has experienced some form of it. Progressives need to be creative in enumerating these forms and showing how our proposals address them. For example, perhaps we talk about latchkey children left alone because both parents have to work in this stagnant economy, elderly parents left alone in underfunded nursing homes, or tired commuters sitting one to a car stuck in traffic because we lack an adequate mass transit system. Maybe we frame the crisis of global warming in terms of protecting the sanctity of a natural world that we share and that provides for all of us. And maybe we talk about the harm that some forms of social media inflict on people unable to enjoy the developmental and emotional fruits of touch and direct personal conversation.
The right speaks to loneliness all the time. It’s about time the left did too. Consider conservative critiques of the “culture of dependency on Washington” heard so often on various campaign trails. The story right-wing ideologues try to sell is that others are being taken care of while each of us is left to fend for ourselves. “They” get taken care of and we’re left out in the cold struggling to make it by ourselves. The unconscious message is that we are cut off from each other, disconnected, trapped and unprotected in our own lonely lives.
The right also continually evokes and addresses the epidemic of loneliness and isolation with its us-vs.-them jingoism around immigration and the so-called war on terrorism. In this case, we are invited to belong to a group, an “us”—say, white hardworking straight Christian Americans—that is defined in opposition to a “them”—immigrants, welfare recipients, Muslims etc. This view of the world may be irrational and corrupt, but it resonates with many people because it implicitly addresses their loneliness and need to belong.
There were two responses to the World Trade Center attacks, each of which touched this nerve. The first was a call to defend ourselves from “them.” The second was to help each other mourn and heal. Collective defense or mutual aid. Both were and are tendencies in the American psyche. Our national leaders chose the first. My point is that progressives need to find ways of evoking and connecting with the second.
As journalist Rebecca Solnit has documented, people come together in times of tragedy, disaster or extreme stress. Their longings for community and purpose are freed up. Fortunately, progressive political organizations and leaders already have ideals of community every bit as compelling as the paranoid views of conservative ideologues and we need to make them into banner headlines in our communications strategies. The Occupy movement, despite its weaknesses, showed that such ideals can attract large numbers of people.
A nurse once told me about a bargaining campaign her union launched that, instead of emphasizing issues of wages and job security, featured a publicity campaign emphasizing the care nurses deliver. The campaign had slogans like, “They’re the first people to take care of our children in the emergency room and our parents in the nursing home. They take care of us; shouldn’t we take care of them?” The campaign wasn’t only politically successful, but engaged the nurse in her union to a greater degree. The campaign talked about caring and community, about mutuality and reciprocity—values that are to loneliness what antibiotics are to a bacterial infection.
In 2012, Bruce Springsteen wrote and recorded a song called "We Take Care of Our Own." It’s about the American promise—not yet fulfilled—of caring for one another. Progressives need to wake up and commit themselves to fulfilling that promise.