The Loneliness Paradox
Tl;dr: loneliness has been driven by technology, an ever-increasing number of people moving to cities, and by the abandonment of Judeo-Christian values.
Note: this article is a personal reflection on loneliness, not an academic paper.
In April 2019, I moved to a 50 sq/m apartment in the center of Brussels for one month prior to moving to Colombia. This apartment had been rented out to me by a 40-something Italian who had made his life in Brussels.
He had decided to go to Iran for a month and had been looking for someone to take care of his plants for four weeks.
He chose me.
I had two jobs: watering the plants, and cleaning the place properly before I leave. Somehow, I managed to do neither, which made him unhappy when he came back. I felt empathy. I knew what the plants meant to him.
I didn’t know much about the guy (I even forgot his name by now) but I knew that he had bought his apartment, that he was an employee, and that he had no kids, no partner, and no pets.
The reason why he cared so much about the plants came to me at the beginning of my stay. As I was unpacking my stuff, I opened a drawer of his desk to put down his mail and stumbled upon a self-help book targeted at the 40-something people that need a bit of direction in their lives.
But the man wasn’t lost.
He was just lonely.
It has been identified as being “as dangerous” for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It also increases the chances to have coronary disease, to be depressed, to commit suicide, and more.
The issue is so widely spread in Western society that the UK appointed in 2018 a minister to tackle the challenge.
There is urgency.
Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation, according to Wikipedia. It does not mean that people are not surrounded by other people.
You can be alone in a group, alone in a job, alone in a family, alone in a marriage, and more. Loneliness, therefore, is not about people.
It is about connection to people.
He who is lonely does not experience human connection or chemistry with somebody else. This absence of boundaries between one another is what triggers the feeling of loneliness.
It is the incapability to relate to someone or to be understood by someone. People build bonds and connections around the experiences, tastes, and opinions they share.
Should two people have nothing in common, they won’t build any connection. Should they be opposed on most issues, they will most likely dislike each other.
What Drives Loneliness?
Screen Technology Drives Loneliness
The time we spend interacting with a screen decreases the time we spend interacting with people. Since one’s feeling of connection will be higher with a person than with a screen, the chances to feel loneliness increase.
But not only.
Screens are so captivating that they attract humans more than their fellow humans when it comes to choosing who to interact with, illustrated through the relationship between screen and sex.
The dramatic drop in the birth rate in the entire world (but Africa) should not primarily be linked to an increase of standards of living like it is often advocated, but to television.
When couples set up TV in their bedroom, they stopped getting laid. After all, Sex and the city is clearly more entertaining and less effort-demanding than actual sex.
Why having sex when you can just watch people having it for you instead?
Whatever you’re watching or interacting with on screens, movies, games, blogs, Youtube, home banking, online businesses, porn, Amazon and howdoigovegan.com are all responsible for an ever-increasing screen consumption, hence loneliness (especially howdoigovegan.com).
The second driver of loneliness is social media usage.
Social Media Drives Loneliness
Social media negatively influences our lives to an extent we don’t understand yet, even though many side effects have been documented.
In her 2012 TED Talk, Sherry Turkle explains how smartphones have given people the chance to take themselves out of the present moment and place to be somewhere else mentally while simultaneously being with other people physically.
The sight of three friends “hanging out together” but in fact, each on their phone has become a common picture. This has led the MIT professor to coin the concept “alone together”.
Physically together, but emotionally alone, or at least…connected to someone who is not physically present.
And it’s getting worse.
Social media have operated a shift in the way we construct our social relationships, going from being quality-based to being quantity-based.
They have enabled us to communicate with 50 people during the day, befriending 600 others and remaining in touch with maybe 100. Yet how many of these people do we really know, or have we really spent time with?
Less than 1?
What we gained in quantity, we lost in quality, hence the rise of loneliness.
Human connection is more than a Facebook invite.
It involves genuine emotions and appreciation, which takes time and effort to be established.
The Filter Bubble Drives Loneliness
The filter bubble is a term coined by Eli Pariser that designates the process whereas algorithms in charge to show users content on portals and platforms (FB, IG, YT, etc) do so in a manner that keeps them within the realm of their own beliefs.
For example, conservatives will only be showed conservative content and won’t be exposed to progressive content. This ensures that the user keeps on coming back to the platform to consume content, which causes many different problems.
It increases time to waste, content consumption, decreases productivity, and (worse of all) reinforces people in their own beliefs, making them simultaneously less tolerant towards different opinions.
The consequences of the filter bubble should not be underestimated.
The recent political events since 2015 have shown how social media users could be influenced and manipulated without even knowing so.
Furthermore, spending time on social platforms can be deeply upsetting, especially when content is designed to trigger these negative emotions.
Such is the job of the infamous Russian troll farm housing workers whose sole task is to create fake social media profiles posting angry content all day long.
Social media have been structurally designed to be addictive. The filter bubble reinforces negative consequences that appear once users make compulsive use of them.
Stress increases, anger increases, frustration increases, the capacity to relate to others decreases, and loneliness increases.
Social media digitally connect us to others.
But at what price?
Life in Cities Drives Loneliness
In the article about the nature of nature, we briefly talked about the fact that a move of people from their natural environment to big cities had made them lost touch with nature.
In this article, I suggest that it also did so with their own nature.
Big cities prevent its inhabitants from finding a human-sized community to be part of and to invest in. Bigger cities are also more dangerous and inhabitants trust each other less than they do in smaller cities or neighborhoods, which are safer places to establish contact and connections with fellow humans.
This increased complexity to find like-minded individuals decreases the chances to get a romantic partner. People live their lives increasingly alone. As a remedy, they adopt pets or plants.
One-person apartments increase in prices due to higher demand. 3-bedrooms apartments lose value as families become scarce.
Mobility Drives Loneliness
Finally, people move much more in cities than they do in smaller communities.
The constant flux of different people decreases the chances to form and sustain already fragile relationships.
Deep connections are not given a chance to be established.
The Decline of Judeo-Christian Values Drives Loneliness
Judeo-Christianity has always highlighted the importance of belonging to communities, from the nuclear family, sealed by marriage and reinforced with children (and the impossibility to divorce), to the religious community coming together at church every Sunday.
The emphasis on the individual is further punished through the 7 deadly sins, all rooted within hedonistic individualism.
Today, lust, gluttony, sloth, and pride are not only tolerated but promoted in certain media discourses.
There has been a clear shift of societal values in Europe (the West) since the end of the ’60s.
“Traditional” values lost their appeal and were replaced by progressive societal norms.
To the traditional family, has been opposed the divorced/recomposed/single parent/same-sex parent family.
To the traditional sexual orientation, has been opposed the LGBTQ+ movement, and so on.
Atheism replaced religions.
Communities, slowly but surely, frayed.
While the consequences of this shift are beyond the scope of this article, it is worth citing how much empowerment the individual has benefited lately, to the point wherein the most extreme cases, the “well-being” of a single person will prevail over the liberties of a group (expressed through restrictions on free speech and the cancel culture).
It is not easy to identify the roots of individualism, since it is impossible to distinguish whether the change of societal paradigm was merely a cause, or a consequence of another effect, such as economic development.
I suggest that there may have been a shift in the way people thought they could reach happiness.
At the end of WWII, the past was conceptualized as a period worth to be forgotten. Two world wars and several genocides encouraged people to find new paradigms to live their lives.
European populations turned themselves to the future, that they hoped brighter. The idea was to reject the path altogether and find out new ways of doing things.
Freed from the need to cater to their communities, baby-boomers went on to explore the world, moving en masse into cities, taking responsibility for their individual happiness, and experiencing with…lust, greed, and gluttony.
The ancient world, centered around the community, was dead. Individualism has risen.
Unfortunately, they were mistaken. Individualism is not a paradigm in itself, but it didn’t need to be opposed to a community-centered lifestyle.
Individualism VS communitarianism is not a zero-sum game. More of one did not mean less of the other, despite the way it has been practiced since.
Such as my Italian landlord later discovered, individual empowerment without any community to be part of, did not provide the intended results.
The Paradox of Loneliness
I consider technology, cities, and the loss of Judeo-Christian values to be the three main drivers of loneliness today, which finally leads us to the explanation of the paradox behind loneliness.
Loneliness, such as hunger or thirst, is the expression of a need for social connection. However, unlike hunger or thirst, the fulfillment of this need is mentally costly.
While opening the fridge and chowing down a piece of bread is nothing but pleasurable, going out to meet someone is hard, because it is not an act that depends on one’s alone.
It depends also on the other individual whose presence will be engaged, and that will have an impact on the quenching of the need.
We need to understand that already-sad, depressed and energy-deprived, the lonely individual will hardly make an extra effort to go out the door and meet people, even though in the long term, it will be beneficial.
Such as the cat complaining it sits on a nail but that is too lazy to move, lonely people enter a vicious circle where loneliness decreases motivation to go out, which increases loneliness and decreases motivation to go out, etc.
It is the paradox of loneliness.
What to Do to Fix Loneliness
Solutions to fix loneliness in society depend largely on political will and views. While some estimate that people should deal with the phenomenon by themselves, arguing it is not the responsibility of the state to ensure people have friends, others would want to tackle the problem because it impacts the finances and mental health of the population.
I am in favor of this latter.
Get Rid of Loneliness Catalysts
While technology, big cities, and the abandonment of Judeo-Christian values have been playing a role in the rise of loneliness, this does not mean we should take down our screens, burn down our cities and go back to church.
Instead, we should investigate how we can repair people’s links with one another. Rather than cutting entirely what prevents social contact, we should find a way to make it coexist with deep and fulfilling social relationships.
A first way to do so is to rebuild and invest in localized communities. Whether they are gardening, recycling, or board game clubs, every inhabitant of cities should be able to join communities articulated around a theme and located nearby their home. This will not only decrease loneliness but rebuild relationships in the neighborhood.
The second initiative should focus on building technologies that bridge people instead of technologies that split them apart. The filter bubble should be replaced with the information landscape, an algorithm that would show people content they don’t agree with in order to keep them tolerant.
Regulations regarding the usage of social media could come into force, where the user would be automatically logged off for x minutes after x hours of content consumption.
Kids under the age of x should be forbidden from using smartphones and social media platforms and should be educated to do so prior to registering the first time.
Finally, cities should be built so that social relationships can naturally flourish. A first initiative could be to better balance the concentration of people within different parts of the city.
Traditionally, housings are located in the outskirt and offices, in the center, which bears great cost on the transportation network and decreases the chances for people to interact with each other.
A better division should be established, with neighborhoods made out of housing units, offices, shops, and green areas, instead of concentrating them in different parts of town.
Architecture, through the building of safe streets and parks, has an enormous role to play. While the establishment of get-together places is important, these will be completely useless if they are not safe (particularly for women) to frequent.
Community housing should also be experimented with. I like to imagine apartments where people would have their private space for themselves while having the chance to meet other inhabitants of the buildings in shared living spaces, based on the principle of student residences.
The Bottom Line
I’m increasingly fascinated with the fact that we managed to build a society ill-suited for ourselves. While science has managed to fight diseases that had been deadly to humans since the dawn of time, we simultaneously created other issues out of a change of lifestyle.
Loneliness is one of them.
And as for many issues tight to modernity, its cure can usually be found in the past.
Not in the future.
There is no technological substitute to fix loneliness. 3D headsets to visit loved-ones digitally will never feel as good and real as…actually visiting your loved ones.
Online communities will never feel as good and real as actual communities. The idea that technology is a quality substitute for the real world is as correct as thinking plastic surgery can rejuvenate somebody.
It is through rethinking the links we have with technology, with our values, and with our cities that we will be able to tackle the loneliness issue and to build a stronger, happier, healthier, and more connected society.