Our house is not just divided against itself. It seems to be fragmenting before our eyes. It’s every man and woman for him- or herself.
More and more Americans work alone and live alone. Many of them believe that solitude is wonderful. They love it so much that they are discommoded by contact with other members of the species.
America’s founding motto, e pluribus unum, means: out of many, one. Now, out of one we have become many cultures, disconnected, disorganized, isolated and alone. Keep in mind that each culture is just as good as the others.
We no longer have one culture. We have many. Everyone seems to be celebrating the chaos, but in a multicultural world you never really know the rules or even the game. The more cultures there are, each with its own customs and mores, the more taxing it is to navigate human relationships. With so many people taking offense so easily, it sometimes feels like it’s easier to avoid other people.
Some would say that we are rugged individualists who have achieved independence and autonomy. And yet, these terms are so confused and confusing that one hesitates even to try to disintricate them from their connotations and associations.
Perhaps it’s a sign of a fragmented culture that words now mean what each individual thinks they mean.
It’s one thing to shoulder the responsibility for your actions and decisions, but it is quite another to believe that you do not have to answer to anyone. The first involves the exercise of free will; the second puts you on the road to anomie.
It’s not just that too people do not know how to get along with others. In many cases, they do not care to do so. First, it takes too much effort and causes too much stress. Second, the culture has convinced them that they will have to compromise their true selves if ever they have to try to get along with others. In our fragmented social whirl people are seeking a personal and individual apotheosis. They believe that they should try to fulfill their human potential… the better to attain emotional and moral superiority.
Susan Pinker offered a glimpse of our increasing isolation in the Wall Street Journal:
Personal independence is such an iconic American value today that few of us question it. In previous generations, retirees lived with family, but now that a large swath of older people can afford to live on their own, that’s what they choose. The convenience of digital devices means that we can now work, shop and pay our bills online, without dealing directly with other people. According to the U.S. Census, 10% of Americans work alone in remote offices and over 13% live alone, the highest rate of solo living in American history.
Researchers have demonstrated that living alone is bad for your health. All other things being equal the solitary individual will die earlier than will his gregarious neighbor:
If you fit into one of three categories—living alone, spending much of your time alone or often feeling lonely—your risk of dying within the next seven years is about 30% higher than it is for people who are otherwise like you. Based on a meta-analysis comprising 70 studies and over 3.4 million adults, the team’s findings reinforce a growing consensus: In-person interaction has physiological effects.
It is not a new idea:
A landmark longitudinal study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1979 followed nearly every resident of a northern California town for nine years; its results showed that people who not only had intimate partners but met regularly with others to play bridge or volunteer at church were twice as likely to outlive those who led solitary lives. Still, critics wondered whether social contact was the key. Perhaps the social butterflies were healthier to begin with, or the more isolated people had hidden problems, such as depression or disability, that cut their lives short.
Everyone ought to understand the value of getting together, at meetings, at the bridge table or at a religious service. The scientists were correct, of course, to ask whether those who socialize more were already healthier, and vice versa.
Lest we forget, the therapy culture, in its advanced mindlessness, would suggest that it’s not the quantity of human contact that matters. What really matters is how we feel about it.
Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s team controlled for these confounding factors. What’s more, they discovered that the effect isn’t always a matter of preference or state of mind. We used to think that subjective experience was all that mattered. You could be single or married, spend your days alone or in a throng of people; if you often felt lonely, the thinking went, your blood pressure would spike and your immune function would suffer.
Pinker explains the more salient discovery:
The new research found, however, that objective measures of the amount of human contact you get are as critical to your survival as your opinion of your social life. “I’ve spent almost my whole career studying social support, and I absolutely know the strong effects that our perceptions have on our physiology,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad told me. “But there are other determinants of health that are independent of our perceptions. Even if we hate exercise or broccoli, they’re still good for you.” Our intuitions don’t always point us in the right direction either, she added. “There are things that we enjoy greatly that are bad for our health, like eating those rich, fatty desserts or that big, juicy burger. We take great pleasure in things that are not that great for our health.”
Allow that one to marinate for a moment. It’s like eating your broccoli. It's good for you even if you do not like it. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how you feel about other people. Interacting with them is beneficial. It doesn’t matter how you feel about being alone. Isolating yourself is bad for your health. Don’t follow your intuitions, your gut or your bliss. It’s good to socialize, no matter what.
As might be expected, the studies point out that social contact affects the body’s biochemistry. This means that in order for the human organism, in all its biological splendor, to function well and efficiently it needs to be in social contact with other human organisms.
Human beings are social beings, they are not monads who come together to join groups, thereby compromising their integrity and repressing their instincts. Sartre notwithstanding, Hell is not other people… unless perhaps you are a psychoanalytically inclined existentialist philosopher.