Can We Overcome Social Isolation And Lead More Connected Lives?
I’ve been reading a lot recently about how the quality of social relationships has been in decline in the U.S. over the past 30 years.
The disturbing evidence from study after study tells us we’re in the midst of what New York Times columnist David Brooks has called ‘an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation’.
More and more Americans, of all economic classes, are living socially impoverished lives. Over 40% of adults report they often feel lonely.
This increased isolation and reduced social engagement seem to be at all levels — family, friends, neighborhoods, local communities, work, voluntary associations, as well as the larger communities of the imagination with which we identify.
Among heavy users of social media and digital screens, younger people especially, the loneliness is often extreme.
Loneliness contributes to more people suffering from depression, and mental health issues that can lead to addiction, suicide, mass shootings and other pathological behaviors.
But it turns out that loneliness also has a direct impact on general health. Social isolation is not just sad. It’s also potentially toxic.
“During my years caring for patients,” says former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes. It was loneliness.” And he adds another stunning statement: “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day…”
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble locating myself in this narrative of social isolation, identifying with it, or fully comprehending its import.
I’ve certainly been lonely at times in my life. I sometimes feel the sting of not being able to connect with people easily because they’re too busy or under too much pressure.
I also experience a decline in the everyday courtesies of social interaction and graciousness in interpersonal communication. And I do believe there are many forces in today’s world that mitigate against connection.
But on the whole, I don’t experience the national crisis of loneliness.
It’s as if, like in so many other areas of life, there’s a world of haves and and a world of have-nots. We don’t only have material wealth inequality these days, we also have social wealth inequality.
Reminiscences of Connected Life
I grew in a family middling in economic status but rich in meaningful social relationships.
My parents went to Europe after the Second World War to work in the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which had distinguished itself during the war as a place that rescued Jews and helped them escape. Their work was with an internationalist school there and on a project to establish an international conference center.
We were accustomed to a home where there were constantly other people around — neighbors, parents’ work colleagues, international visitors. Dinner was a social occasion for the whole family, with guests frequently joining us, and wide-ranging conversations in which all the generations took part.
Half way around the world, my future husband grew up in a tight Jewish community in Cape Town, South Africa, many of whose members had come as refugees before or right after the war.
Everyone knew everyone, personal and business relationships overlapped, newcomers were assisted in becoming established, people visited in each others’ homes. Every summer, all would take off for a shared beach holiday at a resort community sometimes referred to as ‘the shtetl by the sea’.
We were thus both raised in environments where social wealth was present, even as the level of material wealth was modest.
Long before we ever met, we were both oriented to being socially connected to many people, and to living enveloped by community. No self-protective walls and barriers. No hyper-sensitive concern with personal privacy. Instead, an open door and an invitation to others to come in. Reaching out to others, eager to find out about them and to meaningfully engage.
Maybe you, too, have a story of earlier times, when you experienced a connected life such as is rare these days, particularly in the rushed and competitive atmosphere of our dynamic and crowded coastal megacities.
Or maybe you have current experience of a more connected life in less frenetic and isolating parts of the United States. Smaller, more traditional communities. Older regions than the ‘new world of the new world’ in which I live as a Californian.
Or you may be someone who is not a transplant from somewhere else, and actually have roots where you live.
Or maybe, unlike those of us who swell the ranks of the ‘religiously unaffiliated’, you have a church, temple or mosque that provides you with community life.
I like to imagine that most people, regardless of their life journey, have some kind of experience of what meaningful social connection looks like. An experience that shapes their yearnings and their habits, and that they can tap into for inspiration.
Social Connection as a Habit of the Heart
That great French observer of American life in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote insightfully about what he called ‘the habits of the heart’ that helped form the American character.
Among them are two competing values: the communitarian ‘spirit of the New England township’ and the personal self-sufficient orientation of ‘individualism’ — a term he coined to describe something he saw as a potential long-term problem for the new democratic society in the making.
Here’s what he said:
“There are more and more people who… have gained enough wealth and understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody.
They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their destiny is in their hands. … Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone and there is danger that he might be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”
That passage really brought me up short! ‘Shut up in the solitude of his own heart.’ Doesn’t that phrase speak to the essence of loneliness?
And doesn’t De Tocqueville’s perceptive analysis of our culture, nearly two centuries ago, make us realize that isolation and the absence of strong social relationships are culturally inherited and learned?
Five centuries before De Tocqueville, the great Arab scholar and world traveller Ibn Battuta had spoken eloquently about ‘the habit of civilization’. Educators today speak of cultivating in students ‘the habit of inquiry’.
What I’ve learned over the years is that there is also a ‘habit of connection’ which needs to be created, cultivated and maintained.
Which, of course, may also entail un-learning and giving up some of the habits of thinking and behavior that have led over time to our present loneliness and social isolation.
Changing our Thinking
Let’s leave aside all the complex questions of how social isolation should be addressed in public policy, institutions, laws, education, organizations and leadership approaches.
Let’s also leave aside the many dimensions of social isolation that come from economic hardship, on the one hand, and from material wealth (or the pursuit thereof), on the other hand.
Or from the evils of racism, sexism, classism, national chauvinism, and all the other ugly ‘isms’ we humans are so richly capable of inflicting on one another.
When you want to make change, the most important thing to overcome is the old ways of thinking that got you into the predicament you want to escape.
So I think we should start by challenging some of the assumptions in our culture that unconsciously bend us toward social isolation.
Stop thinking of ourselves as isolated islands. We’re human, therefore social beings. Every one of us requires meaningful social connection in order to flourish. It doesn’t matter whether you’re more of an extrovert or an introvert. In whatever form and with whatever degree of intensity is best for each of us, we all need not to feel isolated and cut off from others.
Throw away the Ayn Rand books and their hyper-individualistic nonsense that contends that only our individual selves are real, and society is just an irrelevant artificial construct. Get rid of the idea that life is a race you have to win against others, a single limited pie from which each of us can only get his or her share if others lose out. Get rid of the scarcity mentality.
Stop worshipping all those socially impoverished, hyper-masculine heroes. The Lone-Ranger-John-Wayne-Make-My-Day characters who populate so many of our classic and contemporary movies, rienforcing in us the false lesson that greatness only comes from going it alone.
Bring down those unhealthy walls of fear toward others. That self-protective bubble, which we create supposedly to shield us against unwanted intrusion by others, but which ends up shutting out the light and closing us in.
Decide that we don’t really need to be touchy, angular, unapproachable, grouchy, quick to feel slights and insults, retreating into our shell of emotional safety like scared turtles.
Throw out the idea that the place we live should be a fortified, solitary retreat behind a moat, rather than an open place of meeting and hospitality. Remember that the “my home is my castle” metaphor began as a legal principle, assuring us the right to defend ourselves in our homes. Not an antisocial manifesto calling for everyone to shut themselves up in their houses and apartments.
Treat social connection as a must-have necessity rather than a nice-to-have afterthought. Place high value on social connection, and then make the required adjustments in how we live, and use our time and resources.
Trust other people enough to take the risk of reaching out and connecting with them. Engage with others, don’t avoid them. Do so when it’s easy, do it when it’s more difficult. Keep doing it. Never give up on it.
Come at the goal of social connection from a mindset of service, not a self-focused mindset of need. Think more about what we can do to lessen the isolation of others than about how we would like them to lessen ours. The sure way to fail at social connection is if we approach it out of emotional privation rather than the intention to give.
Don’t capitulate to the fatalism that says there’s nothing we can do about the hyper-individualistic streak in our national culture. Or about the many historical influences that have pushed us in the direction of greater social fragmentation and alienation.
Remember that, as Americans, we’ve also got strong traditions of community spirit, voluntary associations, neighborliness and collective solidarity in our culture.
We don’t have to align ourselves only with the self-sufficient ‘individualism’ tradition, and its attendant loneliness.
We an also connect to the ‘spirit of the New England township’ tradition of working together for the common good.
Cultivating Everyday Habits of Connection
Once we’ve gotten our heads oriented in the right direction, the creative fun begins. If we’re clear that we really want to overcome isolation, lead a connected life and improve the quality of our social relationships, there are countless things we can do.
The trick is to do them consistently, keep doing them over time, practice them, and build them into almost unconscious habits.
I’ll close by sharing some of the everyday habits that have worked well for me, my husband, and sundry friends who are committed to living connected lives on a daily basis.
My favorite habit is to talk to strangers. Wherever I am (adjusting to the norms of different cultures, and to how receptive individuals are), I take advantage of opportunities to communicate with people I don’t know. Find out about them, share a few moments of cheer. I’ll talk to anybody — no social snobbishness or fear of people who are different from me. It always lightens up my day, teaches me something new, and puts a smile on their faces too.
I make it a point to get to know the people who live around me or with whom I interact in work situations. I learn and remember their names (as well as the names of their children and pets), find out interesting things about them that can create points of connection. Over time, I build on those beginnings to deepen the relationships whenever possible.
When someone new moves onto into my immediate neighborhood, I like to go to their home and establish a connection (sometimes bringing a chocolate cake). I introduce myself, welcome them, ask them if they need anything, express interest in them, share with them some highlights about the neighborhood. It breaks the ice and creates a sense of community.
I find that ‘random acts of kindness’ definitely create connection. Bringing food to someone who is unwell and finds it hard to cook. Agreeing to take in a friend’s mail while she’s out of town, or picking up a few groceries to put in her refrigerator for her return. Going out of my way to help someone who needs directions. Or stopping to actually talk to a homeless street person rather than just dropping a few coins.
Being kind and thoughtful in how I communicate on the internet is another of my favorite habits. I know how hurtful a short or curt response to an email can be to a recipient, and how upset people can be if they don’t hear from you at all. I make it a point to be responsive to those who write me, and to respond with care, not just breezily acknowledge the communication.
I believe in the habit of doing all the planning required to set specific times for activities with others. Arranging and negotiating times for phone calls, Skype sessions, in-person appointments, dates for lunch or coffee, going for a walk in the park, attending public events, dinner invitations. I’ve learned this habit the hard way — by experiencing that if you don’t do this, nothing will happen. We’re not a laid-back drop-in-any-time-hang-out society, and the ‘let’s get together for lunch some day’ routine just doesn’t work!
My husband makes it a habit to contact other artists and writers, to let them know his appreciation for something they’ve created or published. These are often people whom he has never had anything to do with before. They’re usually pleasantly surprised, and his reaching out often results in rewarding long-distance intellectual pen pal relationships that are nourishing to both parties. I do a bit of this myself, too, and experience the rewards of an old-style correspondence.
Our neighbor Marianne has developed a wide circle of friends from all over the world. She’s done this especially through participating in a university program called English in Action, that matches up visiting scholars and their spouses to local volunteers, who tutor the visitors in English and orient them to American life.
Our best friend Susan devotes much of her time to her twin loves of choral singing and quilting. She’s deeply involved in local non-profit organizations that promote and carry forward these art forms, and to the people in them. She often takes on serious leadership roles, which involves her even more closely with others. She thus contributes to and benefits from the powerful social connectivity that voluntary associations provide in our culture.
My husband’s and my most significant habit is to make of our home the kind of social place we knew growing up. This does not mean inviting crowds of people for big parties, where you rub elbows, exchange a few superficialities, and speak loudly to be heard over the din! It’s about regularly having a few people over for a meal. Informally, no fuss, not a gourmet cooking display. Just the joy of social relationships and intense conversation over food. Our dining table hums from all the vibrations of past conversations and the expectation of many more to come.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor are these habits glamorous or earth-shaking. But they do contribute to strengthening social connection. Some of them may resonate with you, others may not. You may have some of your own to share.
Can we learn to overcome social isolation and lead more connected lives? Can we learn to flourish together rather than withering away in loneliness?
You might argue that a few people consciously changing their thinking, or adopting new habits, doesn’t seem like something that will address the huge problem of loneliness in our society.
But I believe in the wisdom and efficacy of the sayings we’ve all heard so many times — “The personal is political” or “Think globally, act locally” — and, of course, Margaret Mead’s unforgettable words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
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Karine Schomer, PhD is a writer, speaker, scholar, and a political and social commentator. She writes on Medium at https://medium.com/@schomer44. In her essays, she explores the worlds of society, politics, culture, history, language, world civilizations and life lessons. You can read her writer’s philosophy in The Idea Factory. In her professional life, she earns her keep as a consultant at www.cmct.net and www.indiapractice.com.