Sunday, July 5, 2015

Getting Together or Falling Apart

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:

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.

11 comments: said...

Per Prof. Sherry Turkle, we/I need to be mindful of the seduction of our devices as well!

priss rules said...

Internet gives people a false sense of connectedness.

priss rules said...

"Researchers have demonstrated that living alone is bad for your health."

Depends. Surely living alone is preferable to living with someone like Lena Dunham, Amanda Marcotte, Bill Maher, or Sarah Silverman.

Anonymous said...

The Diversity Party turning into Divest Party.

Ares Olympus said...

Its curious to depict "cultural diversity" as the problem, limiting how we can interact without common ground, while it might as well seem mass-culture, mass-media is actually pushing us toward a single vision of normalcy, so anyone who watches TV and feels alienated by what they see, they feel excluded for feeling different. And perhaps we all in our own ways pass through this process as the world we knew in our youth has become old fashioned and out of date, and we feel on the outside, and perhaps just like all the minorities who were invisible to us for feeling different from our idyllic youth.

I also see what "mass-culture" rewards is consumerism, that is to say the commonality among all of us is to become "independently wealthy" so no one can tell us what to do, and so all relationships can move towards monetary ones. So many wealthy women might get addicted to shopping, especially as they get older because they stop feeling "invisible" and someone has to pay attention to them, at least until the sale is complete.

And meanwhile if a Socialist like Bernie Sanders got elected president, he might want to pull an FDR and try to raise the top marginal tax rate to 90%, and raise capital gains taxes above 15%, and the wealthy won't be happy, just like they were not happy under FDR, but that's the problem with socialism, as long as the majority are happy the unhappy rich have to conform and figure out how to run their 16 homes on only a few million dollars per year, or whatever predicaments.

Is there a way to soften our individualism without softening our character? Maybe not.

Anonymous said...

Studies tend to show that the "rich" are no happier than those who have enough, rather than more than enough, financial security. An (empathic) Zen master once said the rich are always worried that someone will ask them for something, or take away their claim to wealth, which is subject to risk via the political and legal system.

Hell is other people if you are abused or neglected as a very small child. Since a small child must experience pleasure in the presence of others to form adequate causal ideas it is correct to recognize that a child will form confused ideas when he or she is in pain.

Social anxiety can be viewed as a memory of pain in the presence of others, carried forward with confusion to the present (social trauma theory) or as a disorder or neurosis somehow invented by a person that has a confused and incorrect idea about the social causes of pleasure or pain without any justification in personal experience (blaming the victim theory). Homelessness is not caused by people who are lazy, it is caused by people who fear being enmeshed long term with other people in work roles or domestic roles that do not suit them well, and who do not feel the authority to create cultures of their own at work or in homes with others. In the case of a recession or great depression those who want work cannot find it, that is a different social problem.

Sam L. said...

Anon at 9:15, The Diversity crowd abhors any diversity it does not like, and reserves the right to change their minds--but likely won't; they'll follow the Party Line.

Anonymous said...

Stuart -
Thought this quote, from a long lost age, harmonizes nicely with your posting:

Heraclitus says that ...'for those who are awake there is one common Kosmos, but to those who sleep each turns aside into his own world .'


priss rules said...

What passes for ‘courage’ in new America.

No wonder people can't come together to agree on anything.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's a relevant quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his 1880 novel "The Brothers Karamazov". He calls on us to find ways to express brotherly love, as a way to avoid the failings of a fragmented culture. The quote doesn't directly express a need to be accountable to others, but a call toward wholeness after keeping a murder secret by fragmenting himself, and finally willing to confess to be free.
"That life is heaven," he said to me suddenly, "that I have long been thinking about." And all at once he added, "In fact, I think of nothing else." He looked at me and smiled. "I am more convinced of it that you are, I will tell you why later on."
"Heaven," he went on, "lies hidden within all of us - it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me tomorrow and for all time."

"And we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins. You were quite right in thinking that. And it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality."

"And when?" I cried out to him bitterly, "When will that come to pass? Will it ever come to pass? It is not simply a dream?"

"...Believe me, this dream, as you call it, will come to pass without doubt. It will come, but not now, for every process has its law. It's a spiritual, psychological process. To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Everyone will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through a period of isolation."

"What do you mean by isolation?" I asked him.

"Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age - it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For everyone strives to keep his individuality, everyone wants to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself. But meanwhile all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age is split up into units. Man keeps apart, each in his own groove; each one hold aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest. He ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, 'How strong I am now and how secure.'

And in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort.

But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time and people will marvel that they sat so long in the darkness without seeing the light. And the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens. ... But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men's souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die."

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

We do what the Glowing Box commands us to do.