It’s one thing to recognize the importance of free will and individual choice. It’s quite another to make a fetish of radical individuality and to encourage people to see themselves as completely self-contained, self-defining human entities.
Unfortunately, our obsession about defining ourselves as unique, irreplaceable individuals has obscured the fact that we are, first and foremost, social beings.
If I recall correctly, Aristotle once said that there is no such a thing as a human being who can exist on its own, without belonging to a group. Or, as John Donne said, “No man is an island….”
And yet, there is very little interest in the problem of loneliness. In the world of physical and mental health loneliness is a problem without a constituency. Obviously, there is very little understanding of what one can do to overcome it. As of now there is no pill you can take for loneliness.
Jessica Olien found loneliness when she moved to Portland, Oegon and tried to make connections, to find a group of people to hang out with.
She discovered that she had underestimated the difficulty of being a stranger in a strange place. If you are an unfamiliar presence, a new kid in town, people tend not to reach out to welcome you. They tend to keep a safe distance.
Unless, of course, they try to exploit you. To some people, being alone is a sign of being detached from the herd, and thus, fair game.
Of course, it does depend on who you hang out with. If you are a creative type, a writer like Jessica Olien you are likely to try to hang out with other self-defined radical individuals, people who take pride in not conforming to custom, who do not like to follow rules.
If, however, you change cities and get a new job, you will immediately belong to a group. If your children are going to a new school you will make friends with some of the other parents. If you are so inclined you might even join a religious congregation.
People connect when they have something in common. If you practice a profession where everyone prides himself on the fact that he has nothing in common with everyone else, then you, like Olien, are going to have a problem.
Our therapy culture, of course, tells people that if they don’t have friends, it’s because they have unresolved issues.
Even Olien, whose loneliness is easily explained, fell into this trap:
While dealing with my own loneliness in Portland I often found myself thinking, "If I were a better person I wouldn't be lonely."
Her experience of loneliness led Olien to look up the research, especially the work of John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago.
In the end, Olien developed an interest in the topic of loneliness. She concluded that if we want to promote good health and well-being we should figure out how to overcome loneliness.
As a culture we obsess over strategies to prevent obesity. We provide resources to help people quit smoking. But I have never had a doctor ask me how much meaningful social interaction I am getting. Even if a doctor did ask, it is not as though there is a prescription for meaningful social interaction.
Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.
The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.
Somehow or other, we got into the habit of seeing ourselves as isolated individuals comprised of bodily appetites and conscious minds that are struggling to control those appetites. One notes, with no joy, that this view of the human organism dates at least to Freud.
Great theorists spin out compelling narratives about individuals with eating disorders, individuals who are engaged in an often losing struggle with their appetites.
All these adventures in psychic exploration overlook the blatant and obvious fact that the best way to control appetite is to eat with others, to share a meal, to make nourishment part of a social ritual.
One might say that if you know people well enough to sit down to dinner with them, then you are probably not very isolated. Point well taken.
Yet, if social ritual is one of the fundamental ways that human beings assert their membership in a group and connect with others, as Alison Gopnik wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, we understand that human connection, the cure for loneliness, is not just shared intimacy.
Humans connect when they find common ground. It might involve talking about the weather or the local football team or a movie you have both seen. It must involve participating in the rituals and ceremonies that, Confucius said, define community.
This does not mean that getting close to another human being is not a goal, but no one is going to establish such a bond with you if you are not a familiar presence, a regular participant in, for example, religious services or dance classes or Friday night football games.
One knows individuals who try to deal with their loneliness by spending a couple of hours hanging out in a local pub. They discover that they do not have any meaningful conversation and do not really meet anyone new. They conclude that hanging out in a pub is a bad idea. They fail to notice that the key to overcoming loneliness is to make yourself a familiar presence in a pub or at a club. The less you seem to be a stranger the more people will open up to you.
As Olien points out, celebrities and creative individuals who work alone have the most difficulty overcoming loneliness.
If, as Dr. Richard Mollica famously said, “the best anti-depressant is a job,” then celebrities and artists whose days are not organized and structured around the rituals and routines of the work world will be most as risk of loneliness.
A job, a plain ordinary job, gives your life a structure, an organization and a purpose. You know who you are, where you belong and what you need do to continue to belong. With a job your days are often filled with different levels of human interaction, from the easygoing superficial contacts with people whose faces are familiar but whom you do not know well to the deeper connections forged with those who you trust enough to share more personal information.
Celebrities rarely have this much structure in their lives. They have fans, not friends. They have an entourage, but not intimates.
Olien also explains that loneliness has been stigmatized, thus, that it is not a subject that people talk about. I am not sure what she is getting at here. The cure for loneliness is not to complain about being lonely. If you are complaining to another person about how lonely you feel you are engaging in behavior that is off-putting, at the least.
Heaven help us if people start believing that we should have a national conversation about loneliness.
And yet, it would be a good thing for people to cease carping about the joys of being radically individual. It would be good for people to cease extolling the transcendent virtue of not being like anyone else, of not conforming to social codes, or not respecting custom or mores. It would be a good idea if people take more interest and more pride in belonging to a great nation.
If more people felt more connected on more levels to more of their fellow citizens, it would do wonders for our national epidemic of obesity.