The Price of Modern Life Is Depression And Loneliness?

Tell me it isn’t true!

Aug 29, 2014 · 9 min read

By Hugh Mackay
Illustration by Daniel Gray

Naturally, it all depends whose ‘modern life’ you’re talking about.

When it comes to depression and loneliness, some modern lives are riskier than others. For instance, if you spend your life under a waterfall of data, forever inundated by digital messages, a place where constant stimulation has become the norm, then you may well be paying too a high price for being modern. That endless flow of data could be acting like a prison, isolating you from the personal contacts that are the lifeblood of your mental and emotional health.

And there’s another problem with camping under a digital waterfall: when do you have time for absorption, reflection, assessment and interpretation of all those messages? If that time is lost in the onrush of the next message and the next and the next, you will ultimately suffer from sensory overload, and that’s unhealthy. We all need down time, time out, silence and solitude. In the modern world, it’s easy to neglect that need.

Cartoon by Ben Juers

Here’s another at-risk group: If you are devoting more time to online communities than to the flesh-and-blood kind, then your version of ‘modern life’ may be exposing you to the emotional problems that arise from social isolation. Reduced Social Interaction — the other kind of ‘RSI’ — is one of the great hazards of modern life.

Oh, it may seem as if you have a rich social life online. You may enjoy almost continuous connection to social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and all the proliferating others. Yet there’s a paradox at work here: the very media that seem to keep us so closely connected to each other are actually keeping us apart. New IT platforms and apps are amazingly efficient and convenient and, yes, all that data is potentially enriching. But if screen time exceeds face-to-face time, shouldn’t an alarm be ringing inside our head?

When Sydney University researchers Bridianne O’Dea and Andrew Campbell studied 400 secondary school students’ use of social media, they came to a surprising conclusion: ‘spending large amounts of time online for social purposes may increase social distress and have negative impact on self-esteem.’ And a Kent State University study of mobile phone use among 500 undergraduates reported that heavy phone users were likely to have higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of life satisfaction (as well as lower marks) than less heavy users. Obvious question: why spend so much time online — or on the phone — if the effects are potentially so negative? (The most common answer: FOMO — fear of missing out.)

If your ‘modern life’ is happening in a single-person household, then you’re part of a growing trend — solo households are projected to reach about 30 percent of all households within the next ten years — but you do have an increased risk of social isolation. Many people live alone by choice, often for short transitional periods, and love it. But many others have been pitch-forked involuntarily into solo living by bereavement, or relationship breakdown, or some other circumstances not of their choosing. ‘Involuntary singletons’ often have great trouble adapting.

We are now living with a higher proportion of single-person households than at any time in our history: it’s like the ‘global warming’ of population statistics — something we knew was coming, and we knew the causes, but we were unprepared for the scale of it and are having difficulty dealing with its consequences. Postponed family formation, a high divorce rate, a low birthrate and increasing longevity are some of the factors driving the trend. The consequences are by no means always negative, but loneliness lurks and can easily morph into feelings of exclusion and even alienation. And here’s a particular hazard: if you live alone and rely on mass media for most of your information about what’s going on in the world, life will always seem dark and dangerous.

If you live in a dormitory suburb where people generally work away from home, arrive and leave home by car and often work long hours, then the opportunities for those crucial incidental encounters that fuel village life — over the fence, on the footpath or at the local café — are severely limited. It has become a cliche of modern urban life that ‘we don’t know our neighbours’. To the extent that that’s true, it’s a tragedy — not just for us and our neighbours, but for the life of the neighbourhood itself. When a crisis comes, we always need each other, so why wait for a crisis to say hello?

If your ‘modern life’ is built for speed — fast food, ever-faster downloads, speed dating, mini-breaks in place of holidays, life lived on the run — then you may be undermining your emotional foundations more than you realise. What happens if all that rapid-fire stimulation shortens your attention span and makes slower encounters, like dinner-table conversation, seem boring?

Revved-up lives seem more stimulating, more exciting, more entertaining. But what if, under the influence of an ever-faster, ever-busier world, we become more impatient with each other? Love’s work is hard work, and a reluctance to put in the sustained effort is a surefire recipe for the erosion of our personal relationships.

You can’t listen to someone any way but slowly. You can’t build a relationship any way but slowly. You can’t raise kids any way but slowly. It all takes time. And when we’re over-revving, we might not realise that our impatience is sending those around us — including those we love the most — a dispiriting and potentially destructive message: ‘I don’t take you seriously enough to devote all this time to you.’

One of the worst inventions of modern life is the concept of ‘quality time’. When it comes to building and maintaining relationships, there is no substitute for quantity. When did we get so busy that we started looking for short-cuts even in relationships?

But the surest way to increase the risk of loneliness and depression (or at least disappointment) is to fall for those twin seducers of modern life: materialism and the promise of personal happiness. If you think your possessions are an index of your worth, think again. If you think personal happiness is a worthwhile goal, the evidence is against you. Our deepest satisfactions come from a sense of meaning in our lives, usually connected to the nature of our work and the quality of our relationships, and that’s as true for ‘modern’ people as it’s ever been.

Cartoon by Ben Juers

Modern life? There are plenty of hazards, but depression and loneliness are far from inevitable!

If your ‘modern life’ means harnessing all this brilliant new technology in the service of a life still lived in the old way, with plenty of time devoted to the nuances and complexity of face-to-face human communication — augmented, but never replaced by IT — then you’re more likely to keep depression and loneliness at bay. (Also dementia, by the way: nothing keeps the brain young like the challenge of personal conversations — with neighbours, storekeepers, colleagues, or a kid on the bus — that might take you into uncharted and sometimes uncomfortable territory.)

If your ‘modern life’ involves engagement with your local community and a determination to revive the sense of a neighbourhood, then, even if you live alone, loneliness won’t smother you.

The deepest truth about human being is not the one we are so often presented with — that we are all driven by self-interest; that we are ruthlessly competitive by nature; that acts of apparent altruism are just a smokescreen that conceals our true motive, which is merely to be seen as ‘good’. Yes, we can be like that. But the far, far deeper truth is this one: we are by nature social creatures; most acts of altruism are precisely what they appear to be; the co-operative urge lies deep inside us all. Like so many other species on Earth, we depend on communities to sustain us. We don’t function well in isolation; we need each other.

But the communities that sustain us don’t just happen, and they don’t always survive. We must nurture them; we must engage with them; each of us must contribute to the social capital that is our insurance against anarchy. It is this sense of interdependence that prevents any society from descending into chaos. Engagement with the life of the community — the neighbourhood, the society — doesn’t only preserve our own sanity; it also nurtures the social resources that sustain us all. (Saying g’day to a stranger makes more of a contribution than you might think.)

In one of literature’s nastier insults, Somerset Maugham said of Henry James: ‘He did not live life, he observed life from a window and too often was inclined to content himself with no more than what friends told him they saw when they looked out of a window. But what can you know of life unless you have lived it?’

Good question. Maugham could not have foreseen the social revolution that would so quickly be wrought by the ‘electronic window’ that tempts us to trade the flesh-and-blood reality of social engagement for the more remote, artificial and often anonymous contacts in cyberspace.

Here’s a dangerous idea: what if the quest for an answer to that age-old question Who am I? turns out to be pointless? In fact, most of what makes you the unique person you are is hidden from view, buried in your genetic make-up and in the depths of your unconscious mind. But even if you were to find an answer, it would probably turn out to be relatively uninteresting and insignificant: you would find that what makes you unique is not nearly as important as what makes you human.

The US psychotherapist Carl Rogers once wrote that when his clients came to a full realisation of who they were, it was always to appreciate that they were not individuals, but members of groups, networks, families, organisations and communities. A sense of a social identity, it turns out, makes a more powerful and enduring contribution to our mental and emotional wellbeing than a sense of personal identity ever can.

So the really interesting and significant question is not Who am I? but Who are we? The more we let the pressures and seductions of modern life distract us from that question, the more likely we are to fall victim to loneliness and depression, and perhaps even to despair. Nothing sears the soul more achingly than the sense that we are alone.

How ironic that the so-called Age of Communication should have heightened the risk of that happening. So much noise; so little intimacy.

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author. His books include The Good Life : What makes a life worth living?, What makes us tick? : the ten desires that drive us and his latest, The Art of Belonging.


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