It’s not your oral fixations. It’s not your anal retentiveness. It’s not your infantile narcissism. It’s not even your Oedipus complex.
Scientists—what would we do without scientists?—have discovered that people are getting sick and dying from a lack of social connections. That is, they are dying from loneliness. And from anomie, of course.
John T. Cacioppo, author of the book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” writes that “social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.” Numerous studies have concluded that loneliness is actually killing men prematurely.
Writing in The New York Times, Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, noted that “a wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.”
Should we blame it on social media? Or on traditional media? The truth lies elsewhere.
Let’s blame it on social mobility, and diversity. How many people do you know who grow up and grow old in the same neighborhood, within the same community? The ties that bound people in traditional communities no longer bind them. People get up and go. They move around the country and around the world. Everywhere they go they try to make new friends, often at the cost of old friends.
Adapting is not easy. Adapting means learning new customs and new mores. Sometimes it means learning a new language and new table manners. It means getting up to date on prior events in the community. It means understanding cultural references and social codes. It means working to make contact and to maintain contact. But it also means not being overly clingy and overly needy. It is a challenge, one that many people cannot meet.
If you move to a place where the population is diverse you will have even more problems fitting in. You will often not know the rules or even the game that people are playing. Different people come from different places and bring different customs with them. They are not necessarily going to throw it all away in order to assimilate into the new neighborhood. In some cases they will not throw any of it away. They continue to speak the language they spoke in the old country and function as though they had never left.
In a more diverse the community social life is more chaotic. In such cities people form subgroups that have their own rules and their own codes. But, such groups are often not easy to penetrate.
One hastens to add that falling in love does not address the issue. Finding your soul mate or the “One” will not solve the problem. Consider that many therapists believe that once you find true love your problems will vanish in the cold night air. Being in love is a type of social connection, but it does not and cannot and should not be a substitute for friendships and collegiality.
Obviously, it is easier to integrate if you have a job, if you are gainfully employed. That’s why Dr. Richard Mollica suggested that the best anti-depressant is a job. When you have a job you belong to an enterprise. The rules are clear. The roles are defined. People get along easily because they are not obliged to be too personal or too intimate with each other.
Or else, Markowicz explains, you can participate in activities with other parents in your child’s school. She notes that it does not feel very natural, but that it is a good thing.
Young people join cliques and gangs. Belonging brings them status and a structured social world. And yet, when they get older, when their old friends have moved away, they have more difficulty forming new friendships. Perhaps they should figure out a way to join a clique or a gang or even a club. Or maybe they should start hanging out at Cheers.
The moral of the story is that when we are thinking of how best to deal with mental health problems the answer does not lie in having more and better treatment options. It lies in more social contacts and more social relationships.