Saturday, September 22, 2018

Mental Health Is Other People

Justly famous philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once averred that: “Hell is other people.” However brilliant Sartre was-- and he was brilliant-- that does not mean that he was offering a useful guideline for how to conduct your life.

Nowadays, certain academic philosophers are trying to advance their careers and perhaps even to rescue philosophy by arguing that it’s all therapeutic, but we are within our rights to be skeptical about the notion that great minds become great by giving out great advice.

The notion that reading Nietzsche will show you the way to either good mental health or the good life is absurd on its face. True enough, you might, by following his theoretical life plan attain to heights of superhuman authenticity, but you do better not to confuse that with mental health or emotional well being.

True, Nietzsche was a great philosopher, but his radical individuality required you to bully and abuse and overpower other people. Thus, other people exist so you will have foils, allowing you to demonstrate your amoral superiority by pushing them around. Dare we mention that this has given rise, perhaps only indirectly, to some of history’s greatest horrors.

Mental health professionals are doing considerably better than philosophers here. They have recently discovered that mental health and emotional well being are… other people. Therapists make money by offering therapy, whether insight therapy or pharmaceutical enhancements.

If they recognize that many modern citizens are suffering from loneliness, we can imagine that there is something to it. After all, they have nothing to gain by telling us that we can cure much of what ails us, not be dredging up the past, not by reliving our traumas, not by discovering what we really, really want… but be developing more cordial relationships with other people.

Dare I mention, if only in passing, that if other people are the road to mental health, solitude is not quite as valuable as it is knocked up to be. Admittedly, a great thinker like Rousseau liked his solitude. He famously wrote a book (unfinished) called: Reveries of a Solitary Walker. In it he suggested that human beings would find company in the natural world… and thus did not need other people.

For the record, William Wordsworth also made a fetish of walking alone in nature. In his poem “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” he suggested that his perambulations through the English countryside allowed him to connect, even to empathize with daffodils. It must have been quite the communion.

That being said, it is clear that our culture contains a strong, well-defined current that extols the virtue of being alone. Now, psychiatrists tell us that it’s bad for our health.

The Daily Mail has the story:

Even doctors are calling loneliness an epidemic of the modern age.

Nearly half of Americans say that they feel lonely most or even all of the time, and it isn't just a detriment to their social lives and happiness; loneliness is bad for their health.

Plenty of studies have found strong links between loneliness and risks for just about every disease - from cardiovascular disease to stroke and even death on the whole.

The mental health profession has seen the danger for quite some time now:

The health dangers of loneliness are not new. A review of studies conducted back in 1988 identified higher rates of mortality, illness, injury, smoking, obesity and high blood pressure in lonely people, marking social isolation a risk factor for all of the above.  

Happily, physicians have discovered why loneliness is so bad for your health. Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Christopher Bullock, in particular, has analyzed the problem:

Social activity stimulates a variety of parts of the brain. Like our muscles, the regions of our brains need to be active in order to stay fit.

Several key areas 'atrophy,' so to speak, when we are lonely and isolated, according to Dr Bullock's blog post.

We start to lose gray brain matter in the regions that allow us to read the facial expressions, tones and movements of other people and that allow us to imagine what's happening in another person's mind.

Even if you spend most of your time alone, picking up on social cues like these isn't just important to making friends, it's a survival mechanism.

Meanwhile, regions of the [brain] that tell us something is painful thrive on our loneliness.

Scientists see greater activity in these parts of the brain when people are lonely. They have also observed an uptick in activity and chaos the amygdala, which regulates emotions and emotional responses.  

This part of the brain, the amygdala gets revved up and reacts to 'negative stimuli' - situations that are upsetting - more but has a harder time recovering from these experiences.

Similarly, the dorsal posterior insula, which regulates how painful something feels actually becomes more active when we are lonely, so injuries - which, incidentally, happen more often to people who are socially isolated - actually hurt more.

When you engage in social activities, even on the most elementary and superficial level, you are reading social cues and are making social cues. Thus, you are defining yourself as a social being, and not as a radical isolated and separated individual. Obviously enough, being isolated and separated from the group puts you in more danger. It causes your stress hormones to increase.

The cure is other people. It is not deeply meaningful relationships with other people. It is not deeply personal conversations. I note and emphasize the point. Dr. Bullock explains:

But Dr Bullock says that these effects can be reduced if not reversed even just by being in the presence of other people.

'People are anxiety relievers. And people are antidepressants, as well as blood pressure reducers (mostly). People, in general, are good for you,' writes Dr Bullock.

He suggests that even the distant presence of others during solitary activities - like going to a library or public place to read - can inspire the brain to give us more oxytocin, putting a damper on our soaring stress hormone levels.

Better yet, and more clearly proven, making a friend might be the best thing you can do for your health.

Now, ask yourself this: is working from home the same as working in an office? In the latter case you are surrounded by more people. In the former case you are isolated. Ought we to imagine that perhaps the latter is healthier and ultimately more productive than the former.

He concludes:

'Humans are social creatures. Among ourselves we form all kinds of complex alliances, affiliations, attachments, loves, and hates. If those connections break down, an individual risks health impacts throughout the body,' Dr Bullock wrote.


Sam L. said...

People: I can take 'em or leave 'em, but that's just me. Your mileage will no doubt vary greatly.

Anonymous said...

Loneliness is definitely more complex than that for the human. For some people there is nothing more isolating than sitting in a noisy cafeteria, or walking along an crowded sidewalk in the city. Plenty of couples feel just as lonely as being single if there is no sense of connection between them.

Intellectually speaking, no two people no matter how close can truly communicate directly, two brain-in-a-vat(s) with a blind chasm between them must be traversed. You truly always are alone no matter how your brain makes your mind feel this.

Ares Olympus said...

Lots of interrelated ideas here that might need some differentiation for clarity. Anon@7:01 suggests one - loneliness isn't necessarily about being alone or not. If there are people around, but nothing apparent that can "break the ice", then every just stays alone together. But maybe that's still something?

I also think of a widow in my neighborhood a decade ago was a hoarder, but most of it was from shopping so everything was new and unused just piled up all over. So a short terms solution to loneliness (getting attention from salespeople) became a habit that accumulated stuff she didn't know what to do with.

I'd recommend C.S. Lewis's book "The Four Loves" for perspective, and a reminder we have many divergent needs that can fit under the word love, and if what we're doing now leaves us unfilled, it could be perfectly good, just not what we need. As well, it shows books offer another escape from loneliness, but best of course if their contents give you inspiration in reaching out in your real world around you.

Anonymous said...

"But maybe that's still something?"

I mostly do agree with your remark on my comment. It certainly is some thing.

Always try to love the neighbor and readily forgive if he mistakenly eats my puppy. Remain thankful the neighbor has taught a valuable lesson concerning 'man's best friend'. Perhaps dog and pet owner share mutual hunger pangs for each other.

My affection for adorable puppy becomes rather strained when its appearance transforms into the likeness of a puppy size cockroach. I lose all appetite even though I'd still likely eat a puppy sized lobster.

Often, I choose not to resent that I mindlessly take for granted the reality of my puppy's dogness, if my puppy ever changes into its cockroach form I can only fantasize about my puppy's former dogness while petting a new pet cockroach. My hunger fantasies are fixated on the fantastic ideas I have about my puppy. Dogs are deceptive pets like that. A giant centipede makes for a more honest pet experience.

It would take superb imagination to lovingly talk human to giant centipede on lap petting it affectionately while it nibbles my fingers hungrily for blood meal.