On Loneliness

As we evolved, we did so in small bands or troops. The nature of our species is that unlike solitary predators, we relied on each other for resources, for cooperation and for mating opportunities. The human animal relied on cultural learning and skills to survive in the world that was passed through generations. A human being on their own largely would be unable to survive. Clothing, shelter, tools, and food production on one’s own were beyond what most people could do. Even the most gifted would find themselves sick or injured from time to time which would require others to both care give and to share their resources.


Any human who disregarded these social relationships and struck off on their own would likely meet an untimely death, or at the very least lack for opportunities to produce viable offspring. So cooperation, the desire to be around others, and a willingness to share were genetic features that would be selected for from generation to generation. 

Genetic inclinations manifest as thoughts, feelings and urges. The feeling of loneliness that we all grapple with comes from long evolutionary selection telling us to not be alone and to connect with others. In times past, it was necessary to survive. But what about today? Technology and other advancements has made it possible to live a life relatively free from hunger, physical suffering, and discomfort on our own. We live in a world that has commoditized nearly everything and it is all for sale.  If you earn a sufficient income, you can pay people to provide you shelter, cook for you, and take care of you when you are sick. The basic needs of survival can all be met with no real human connection whatsoever. 

But it is worse than that. Our capitalistic economy is based on selling products. Socially, it has been acceptable for many decades to advertise directly to adults and children. The advertising strategy is well known and nearly ubiquitous. To sell more goods, many of which didn’t even exist a decade ago, the cunning marketer creates a want or need in the individual and then provides the “solution.” And their interest and the interest of the economic culture we share is to sell as many products as possible. An outsider looking in would surely comment on how we purchase products that can and should be a shared resource but instead are locked up in our own little private spaces. Social media has been a huge problem. Like junk food can make you feel full without providing real nutrition or health, social media platforms can make you feel like you are socially engaging but these things often leave us feeling more lonely and isolated. One only need to observe humans gathering in common spaces like a park or a bus. Nearly everyone will be locked into their own isolated world staring at their phone. 

We have a culture that encourages us to build isolated little bunkers that allow us to skip significant human interaction. Think about most of the things you use daily for example your stove, your car, or your yard. Most of the time it sits idle. You do not need it but maybe once or twice a day. Many things we use far less often. This is only important because this consumer capitalism has further isolated us and divided us. Activities such as meals, listening to stories or listening to music are now done mostly as solitary isolated activities. The glue which held us together and kept us from feeling lonely has been packaged and sold to us. It gives us a sense of control and utility, but it comes at the cost of our relationships.  
Recently the Cigna health insurance company performed nationwide survey of 20,000 adults on loneliness (see  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden.) 50% of Americans reported feeling alone or left out always or sometimes. 54% said that they always or sometimes feel like no one knows them well. And 40% said they felt like “they lack companionship”, their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and they are isolated from others.” The conclusion is unmistakable, half of all Americans feel alone and not connected. It isn’t a wonder. Our culture seeks to isolate us to sell more goods and there isn’t much of a profit motive in providing the common human connections we are evolved to have.

What is to be done? Loneliness is a biological signal telling you that you need to connect with other human beings. Human connection takes time. Lots of time. I believe the secret to connecting to people and overcoming loneliness is time together. Lots and lots of it. One must learn to trust others. One must learn to be vulnerable and honor other individuals and respect their vulnerability. One must learn to let their guard down. One must give others a chance to learn your own story and in turn learn theirs. In short, one must counteract the culture of isolation. 

Many people think they want this. They want to be less lonely. They want closer friends and companions but they simply aren’t willing to take the time and to face potential hurt from rejection. Of course the irony is that nearly everyone is walking around thinking the exact same thing. The other difficulty is that people around you are all facing the same addictions to electronic media and consumer culture that has caused the problem in the first place. So the job of finding friends isn’t free. It takes time and sometimes a few hurts. But it can be well worth it. Think about it. Half of everyone you meet is longing for meaningful connection with new friends. The field is white. 

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