The New Age of Loneliness
In a 1972 film Liza Minelli sang a lyric that soon became the anthem of a generation. “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come here the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret!”
The exhortation to get out and live life large resonated with the post-war crowd. It still does. Those who were young adults in the seventies are now in their dotage, and if they’re still breathing, they’re less likely to be living lonely, solitary lives than are today’s twenty-somethings. Yup, digital natives are among the loneliest people around.
Most people see loneliness as part of ageing, like white hair, varicose veins and a stooped posture. But the data tell us something else entirely. Those spending too much time without human contact do not necessarily fit the stereotype of the solitary pensioner on a park bench, scattering breadcrumbs to the pigeons.
In other words, loneliness is not about “them”. It’s about us.
In the US the loneliest are the middle aged - people in their 40s and 50s. In the UK the chronically lonely includes the teenager who feels socially excluded and the young adult who lives and spends his work day alone. It also includes the twenty-something year-olds whose main form of social contact is via networked technology, and young parents whose main form of company is a preverbal child. In other words, loneliness is not about “them”. It’s about us.
British and New Zealand population surveys tell us the two most socially isolated age groups are newly retired baby boomers and young adults. Young folks are the ones sitting alone in their rooms, or by themselves in cubicles and coffeeshops, each one having a solo date with his or her laptop. They are among the loneliest, and if they’re at all concerned with their health and well-being, they’ll tweak their solitary habits.
Why? That’s because the emerging science on loneliness is sobering. We’re more connected than ever but we’ve never been lonelier—and with dramatic effects. In the mid-eighties we had three people on average we could depend on. Now we have an average of less than two.
Solo living has increased 300 percent in the last forty years and is now higher than it has ever been in human history. By altering our eating, smoking and exercise habits we’ve become healthier in a single generation. But this particular lifestyle trend—the dramatic reduction in face-to-face contact--is driving us in the opposite direction.
How do we know? A 2010 meta-analysis of 309,000 people showed that in person social contact was the strongest predictor of health and longevity - predicting our health in midlife better than smoking and exercise. Those integrated into their communities, by participating in person, had half the risk of dying over seven years.
Meanwhile research by Keith Hampton has shown a link between the amount of time spent online and the extent of one’s local social involvement; as online activity increases, local in person contacts decreases A follow up study showed that feeling lonely, living alone, or being without face to face contact increases one’s mortality risk - the chance of dying within a certain period in comparison to your peers - by an average of 30 percent.
Conflate and replace in person interaction with screen contact and you increase your health and psychological risks.
A huge study of women with breast cancer found that those with the largest number of face to face contacts were four times as likely to survive their illness as those who were more solitary; research has since shown that social contact switches on and off genes that regulate tumor growth. And multiple researchers on both sides of the Atlantic have found that socially integrated people have better immunity and recover faster if they do get sick—compared to the more solitary.
I could go on and on, but the empirical picture is clear. Conflate and replace in person interaction with screen contact and you increase your health and psychological risks.
It’s hard to admit that you don’t have enough face-to-face social contact because there’s a taboo about talking about loneliness. There’s also a widespread love affair with all things digital. We’re inundated with invitations to “eat to the Tweet,” to embrace social media, to click “like”, to add our eyeballs and cookies to commercial webpages - to buy, work, study and communicate online.
Networked technology is a powerful medium for searching, storing and analyzing discrete bits of information, to be sure, and it is also a convenient and cheap way to communicate. But is it as good for our health and well-being as a pat on the back, a hug, or even a handshake in real time? That’s not what the research is telling us. You can block out the evidence by sitting alone in your room, or you can “hear the social music play”.
After all, life is about social interplay, old chum. Life is that interplay.