Why we might all be wrong about ‘the loneliness epidemic’

Last week I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Everyone was dressed up to see a marching band. It was a community affair: many people knew each other and the band, and though they didn’t know my girlfriend and me, they welcomed us. We walked through the neighbourhood for hours behind the parading musicians; the air smelled like weed and every conceivable variety of alcohol was being drunk (it started at 9 am).

At one point a trumpeter peeled off and started playing at the shuttered front door of a house, directing the music through the wooden slats in a manner that called to mind a snake charmer. The audience knew whose house it was, and called for the owner to come out, and eventually — after, I think, a deliberate dramatic pause — he did and danced a little and everyone cheered. Everybody was laughing, everybody smiling, everybody dancing.

I found myself asking why. Why Mardi Gras? Why everything that I saw?

This might seem such an obviously answerable question that it’s pointless even to consider. Hopefully this obvious answer satisfies you:

  • Mardi Gras exists because people like to be together, and dressing up, drinking, listening to music, etc. makes it just more fun to be together.

But here’s another, entirely different answer, which I want to explore in this essay:

  • Mardi Gras exists because people don’t like to be together, but realize they ought to be, and so, like adding tons of salt to a poor meal, add costumes and weed to make it tolerable.

This might sound like only the sort of theory that a philosopher would go for: completely ridiculous and ignorant of the fact that being with others is one of the deepest and most fundamental desires we have. Well, maybe. But hear me out, because I think my answer has some things to recommend it, and even if it’s not entirely true, it nevertheless offers an important corrective to some of the ways we think about connection and isolation today.

The Loneliness Epidemic

Open or scroll to a newspaper and you’ll eventually find an article about how we’re living though a loneliness epidemic (google if you don’t believe me). This article, for example, tells us that the number of Americans reporting themselves lonely has doubled in the last twenty years, and points out that loneliness brings in its train a range of mental and physical health problems.

Reasons for this scourge are easy to find, too. Sociologist Robert Putnam famously pointed out (in his 2000 Bowling Alone) that civic participation — being involved in political parties or neighbourhood activities, or even just bowling or hanging out at a bar — plummeted in the last third of the twentieth century, and did so just as television became ubiquitous. Anthropologist Shelley Turkle in, for example, Alone Together (2012), shows the ways, big and small, that technology substitutes for interacting with other people, from robotic dogs to social media. And psychologist Jean Twenge, in her 2017 book iGen, points out that face-to-face socializing among the young dropped off in 2007, the year of the iPhone.

These suggest a clear theory: technology leads to loneliness. And it suggests a somewhat clear course of action: lessen our reliance on technology. But what if this is exactly the wrong way round? What if, instead of loneliness being caused by the use of technology, loneliness causes it? On this theory, we desire to be alone, and technology helps us be so. I want to explore this thought.

Here’s my theory of loneliness. For most of human history, we were, and were visibly, dependent on others. Farming required that labour be sufficiently divided that we needed a community to make a meal — a person to make the tools and one to harvest, one to grind and one to cook. The lack of pensions meant we needed to, and so did, have children. But because our income was sufficiently low, those children had to stay with us, perhaps even in the same room. Poverty begat community, and loneliness wasn’t even a possibility.

Things changed. We got much richer, got much more used to money. We could leave our parents’ home. Goods and information could travel distances to us, and we didn’t need to know the people who made our food, who built our houses, who told our stories. A state came along to see us through our old age without children to look after us.

These developments made loneliness, for the first time, a possibility. And when that possibility arose, we chose it with open arms. We grew less close to our family and had fewer kids; we spent our time in front of the TV and then the internet.

On this story, the problem with loneliness is not that it’s some disease that comes and ruins lives, as the talk of an epidemic suggests. The problem is, like hardcore pornography or meth, it’s something new and too irresistible, something alluring the dangers of which we don’t know how to deal with because for most of history we never had to.

We want to be alone. TV, the internet, even capitalism itself are not causes of loneliness, but effects of it.

(Some of) St Anthony’s Ramblers, Mardi Gras 2019 (my photo)

I hope this sounds absurd. It is pretty absurd. But still, it’s worth considering. Because, well, let’s think about it. What would our world look like if we wanted to be alone?

  • We would, when faced with an alternative that satisfied the needs of being with other people while still being alone, adopt that alternative.

That’s exactly what we see, with TV and the internet and robots.

  • We would, if we nevertheless had to be with other people, seek ways to make it more attractive.

That’s why we hang our in bars, and why Mardi Gras exists. To dress up the drab prospect of being with others by dulling ourselves with alcohol or dancing or costuming.

  • We would, if we weren’t economically compelled to, seek to minimize our ties to others.

Again, the well attested correlation between a falling birth rate and economic prosperity shows this.

There’s more. There’s a ready intuitive explanation for why we might want to be alone. Being with people is hard. Others are annoying. Relationships require work. Rearing children isn’t a walk in the park. For most of history, we just had to get over this difficulty. But we don’t any more.

Moreover, this way of viewing things makes perfect sense of something that, if you spend much time on some social media sites, you’ll see a lot: the frequency with people talk about how relieved/happy they are when someone cancels plans. This is not, on this view, a marginal weird #introvertproblems thing, but an expression of our deep desires.

What follows? Several things. As mentioned, it seems pretty well attested that isolation is bad for us. It leads to physical and mental health problems. The perspective I’ve suggested gives us a way to think of it. Isolation is like an addiction — something irresistible but to be avoided.

This is an important perspective to adopt. Both I and the people who think isolation arises because of technology agree, I think, on the way forward. But our different starting points will lead us to different recommendations. If you think TV or the internet causes isolation, then you’ll naturally enough think that we should limit our use of TV and the internet.

But if you think that it’s our desire for isolation that is primary, the root of our problems, then the thing we have to do is find a way to get rid of that desire. And I think that a very good starting point, at least, is getting clear that it is a desire, that there are forces within us that push us towards isolation, and that this is something we need to fight against. Our quibble shouldn’t be with the iPhone or cable, but with ourselves.

That we want and need other people seems to be one of the deepest truths about what it is to be human. But maybe it’s not true, and maybe realizing that will help us avoid the ill effects that isolation brings.