Reflections and Commentaries from the Rev. Patrice Taylor (Al-Shatti), our Deacon.
Lonely in a Hyper-Connected World
Part 8 of 8: Do We Really Want to Bowl Alone?
At the turn of the Millennium, author Robert Putnam warned us that American culture was shifting in fundamental ways. In his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community”, he documented our fraying social connections and in the twenty years since its publication, indicators point to a further decline in our associational lives, those relationships outside our families. I hope this series has sensitized you to the problem of loneliness in the U.S. and helped you see that it’s seeds are in all of us. Our need for social connection is more subtle that it was long ago, so we deny or neglect it, leaning on our strong desire for freedom. But freedom isn’t free, as the saying goes. The price is emotional, cognitive, and actually physical.
Five habits of mind and lifestyle put all of us at risk and half of us sometimes or always feel left out or alone. I hope you caught the important takeaways I shared. Recognize that time spent making and maintaining friendships is as vital to your well-being as exercise and sleep. It’s not frivolous. Watch your digital life so that it doesn’t sideline real life relationships. Try to limit the use of the computer in your pocket when with others. Learn to ask for help and learn to offer it. Stop leaning on your busyness as a means of avoiding commitments. And look for people to relate to because our friendships aren’t static and as people leave your life you must bring new friends into it in order to maintain a community around you.
If you are very lonely, see a counselor and ask for help. There are therapies that can get you moving, get you taking risks, help you to dip back into human connection knowing that you have a caring coach for support. And church is an awesome place to connect with new people. Connection is one of our four pillars, after all.
Watch for more content on the All Saints website this program year as we launch the Loneliness in America Project. Over time, you’ll find content there for all ages and much to share with the larger community. If you belong to a group that should hear this information, email me because I will be sharing it with churches, small groups, and organizations around the state in the season to come. If you want more reading, check out “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century” by doctors Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz. If the article about men concerned you, look for “Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success” by Dr. Thomas Joiner. We don’t need to bowl alone, you know, and having you tribe starts with recognizing that you need one.
Lonely in a Hyper-Connect World
Part 7 of 8: The Unique Challenge for Men
“Having no one starts out as having everything.” says psychologist Thomas Joiner, an expert in suicide and men’s mental health. All the dynamics we’ve been discussing over the last six weeks are especially troublesome for men in our culture, and statistics about men’s well-being are sobering. Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women and men die from all causes, at all ages, more than women. By midlife, men are also statistically much lonelier than women and as we saw earlier in this series, loneliness is a set up for physical, mental, and social dis-ease. Of course these are broad characterizations and, individually, there are plenty of healthy, socially connected men, but the fact is that our culture does make it more difficult for them.
They are taught to suppress emotion and value independence at an early age, even in today’s progressive environment. Boys have close friends when they are young, but with adolescence comes a pulling away from emotional relationships, and a move toward competitiveness. They develop a ‘don’t tread on me’ attitude and start to have trouble trusting and reaching out for help. Young men are happier than older men, but, over the years, the readymade friendships of high school and college fall away and they gradually lose contact with extended family. When they partner, men often put all their social eggs in the spouse’s basket. As they move into their earning years, men are encouraged to focus on career and providing for their families, and friendships can be seen as rather frivolous.
They are at risk of becoming “alone but clueless”, a term Dr. Joiner uses to describe a phenomenon whereby a man has no close relationships outside the immediate family, but doesn’t actually recognize his own aloneness. If his marriage or health fails with age, or even just when his children leave the home and his wife moves into her own activities, a man who did not build close male friendships can be left feeling bereft and without purpose. The forces that fostered his self-reliance and independence at the cost of a social network leave him lonely and completely confused as to how he got there. But it’s never too late to rebuild a tribe, and that will be our topic next week.
Lonely in a Hyper-Connect World
Part 6 of 8: The Technology in My Pocket
You’re going to think I’m just being opinionated, but it’s actually in the research. Our phone and social media usage is definitely a two edged sword. It gives us access to the information of everything and to loved ones on the other side of the globe, but it affects our mood, behavior, social patterns, and even brain wiring. It is, in part, responsible for the explosion of loneliness.
Professors Norman Nie and Lutz Erbring of Stanford found that “the more time people spend on the internet, the less time they spend with real people.” It’s an hour for hour exchange. Sociologist Jean Twenge found that teens who spend more time on their screens tend to be unhappier than teens who don’t. “There’s not a single exception.” Sociologist Sherry Turkle found that phones on a restaurant table negatively affect the quality of conversations. People don’t feel as invested in each other because they’re likely to be interrupted. “Even a silent phone disconnects us.” Dr. Ethan Kross found that Facebook use predicts declines in well-being and other authors have noted that frequent Facebook use tends to make us feel worse about our lives. Compared to my friend’s awesome vacation, cute as a button grandkids, and big family get togethers my world seems boring and depressing. What we don’t realize is that we’re comparing other peoples curated highlight reels to our real, and sometimes painful, actual lives.
Social media is not really an actual kinship network and most of those friends aren’t actually going to show up at our bedsides. We need real life tribes. On a biological level, our brains and bodies were designed to read social cues in body language and voice, in in-person interactions. Phone use across the culture is eroding our social skills and sense of empathy, particularly among young users. And the click bait nature of the internet is reducing our attentions spans and making us more impatient, also most dramatically seen in those who are young and still developing permanent brain wiring. For people who feel loved and well-connected, these tools can be a reassuring extension of our social networks, but it is not a replacement. Consider how much time you spend on the technology in your pocket and maybe take a break once in a while. Pause the Googling. After all, someone may want to talk to you.
Part 5 of 8: The Nature of Modern Work
Work is where we really do ourselves in these days. Particularly for younger Americans, there is a strong belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but is the centerpiece of one’s identity. It’s even got a name, workism. Despite having been socialized to find their passion in their careers, younger workers, burdened with student debt, struggle to gain financial security. So they buy fewer homes and fewer diamonds, postponing or passing on marriage and family, key elements of most people’s networks. Between managing their professional images via Linked In and working endless hours in what is now know as the “hustle culture”, younger workers have limited will to forge lasting friendships and a recent study noted that millennials are currently the loneliness generation. Writer Anne Peterson describes the distress this way, “Why am I burned out? Because I have internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it explicitly and implicitly since I was young.”
For workers of all ages, the office isn’t the social hub it used to be. We
are siloed at our computers and talk to each other via text, online chat, and
email. Many workers are alone, telecommuting from home or working as
independent contractors. The gig economy is a huge part of the job market,
offering independence and flexibility, but it is crippling in its lack of
social contact with coworkers. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy worries that
the chronic lack of real connection in the workplace leads to stress and a
writer for Forbes Magazine noted that “if workplace technology continues on its
current trend, we can expect progressive disengagement among employees.”
For older workers another distraction is pulling us from our associational lives, caregiving. The average US caregiver is a 49 year old woman with a full time job who spends nearly 20 hours a week providing unpaid care. Nearly one in four middle aged workers are family caregivers, moving from an isolating workplace to parent care. In short, for all generations, work is not the place anymore where we’re likely to form lifelong bonds of friendship. The trend has crept up on us slowly, but undermines our well-being and requires an active counter strategy if we are to stay socially engaged.
Lonely in a Hyper-Connected World
Part 4 of 8: Our Busyness
As you saw last week, our independence and self-reliance works against social connectedness. The same is true of our extreme busyness. We are too busy to answer the phone and many of us don’t even leave voice mails because so few people check them. When did texting become the default mode of communication? We are too busy to get together and we assume that others are too busy to do the same so we don’t bother them. Haven’t seen a neighbor in a while? I bet they’re just busy. So we don’t ask them for anything, help them with anything, check on them, or do the other small actions that build relationship.
Productively and busyness are signs of success in the US and when we ask how someone is doing the common answer is, “So busy!” The average two parent family works 15 hours a day between work and home and at times appears to be frayed and fracturing. In the olden days, the social calendar was the wife’s responsibility, but these days it is no one’s. So exhausted families just cocoon into themselves on the weekend, and the problem with this isolation is that the healthiest families have friends and relatives in and out of the household, observers and advisors. This practice, common in other counties, reduces domestic and child abuse and strengthens marriages.
The most interesting of these tendencies is our
proclivity for pacing ourselves with an on-off switch. I’m here, working a mile
a minute, then I’m off. Out of the office. Out of touch. Our relaxation time is
often spent somewhere other than our communities and neighborhoods; cruise
ships, vacation homes, beaches, anywhere where we can disconnect to rest. But
where is the time to make and nurture friendships, one of the basic building
blocks of human well-being? It takes commitment to arrange get togethers and
remember to check in by phone. It takes cognitive bandwidth to remember
someone’s birthday, surgery date, or just that they’re going through a tough
time. Friendships don’t sustain themselves and when we’re just too busy they
fall by the wayside. Food for thought as you move through your busy week.
Lonely in a Hyper-Connected World
Part 3 of 8: Our Independence and Self-Reliance
Are you hanging in there with me so far? We talked about how prevalent loneliness is in America and the toll on our wellbeing. We explored how misunderstood it is and maybe you took a self-assessment test. Over the next four columns we’re going to look at the four habits of mind and lifestyle that make us particularly vulnerable to loneliness compared to people in other cultures. I hope you will see small ways in which you might be contributing to your own self-isolation, whether you really feel lonely or not, and my hope is that that awareness will prompt you to make small changes that enrich, rather than impoverish, your social network.
Our first unhelpful belief is in our own our self-sufficiency and independence. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited America and noted that “they form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their destiny is in their own hands.” Little has changed since then. Our iconic heroes are the John Waynes and Jason Bournes. All loners who save the day. Our business leaders are self-made men and women and the best politician is the scrappy outsider. Our country was populated by immigrants who left the family home and ventured out over an ocean and our Arizona story is of self-sufficient pioneers. It’s in our DNA, but it’s neither true nor helpful, because there are many things we can’t accomplish alone. One bad diagnosis will teach you that quickly.
We also have come to cherish our individualism. A trip to
the toothpaste aisle makes that self-evident as there are about 1000 options.
“Sixty years of a hyper-individualistic culture have weakened the bonds between
people.” says writer David Brooks. There are countless versions of the lives we
can live so we hesitate to commit anywhere, and our biggest dream may be of the
unconstrained life where we can live our passion, whatever that is, and keep
our options open. Kids have their own rooms, toys, and trophies, and adults
have individualized iPhone cases and news feeds. But I’d respectfully say that
this leaves us spoiled in some ways. I’m not going to commit to a Monday night
meeting at church, or a dinner with a friend because I may want to do something
else when the time comes. Each decision to keep options open tends to leave us
more alone in the end because the independent and self-reliant life comes at an
obvious price--social connection.
Lonely in a Hyperconnected World, Part 2 of 8
The Personal Consequences
Loneliness is a serious health problem. Lonely people are literally more at risk of dying in any given year than socially connected people, 50% more likely. This is equivalent to the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Can you believe it? Lonely people also have a higher likelihood of Alzheimer’s Disease, high blood pressure, abnormal white blood cell production, stroke, heart disease, immune system malfunction, and insomnia. Their health is much worse in all ways and in old age lonely people have more problems with activities of daily living, such as walking and getting up and down from chairs.
The physical toll of loneliness is astonishing, and it’s all because the body interprets loneliness as a serious threat. In primitive times, when we lived in small groups in a daily fight with nature, a lonely human was soon a dead human, so our body’s fight or flight response is triggered when we feel chronically isolated. This chronic physical arousal is deadly because it hijacks all our normal physiological processes.
The mind is also affected by this warning system and the way we process information changes for the worse when we are lonely. Because we feel under threat, we focus on survival. We have a harder time focusing, soothing ourselves in healthy ways, planning and organizing tasks, controlling our impulses, making thoughtful decisions, and interpreting others’ behavior.
Mentally, the chronic fight or flight has us looking out for threats and
finding them in ordinary situations. We start to feel left out and believe that
other people are rejecting us. This causes us to self-isolate more and makes it
harder to step into socialization the next time. Feeling left out ultimately makes
us more aggressive and self-defeating. It causes us to quit tasks sooner and
makes us apathetic about our own best interests and our own care. We see people
as critical, unwelcoming, and judgmental, and because we are so challenging to
live with, we really do end up alone more often when we are chronically lonely,
with more divorce, interpersonal violence, and family estrangement in our
history. It’s a vicious cycle that goes nowhere good.
God designed us for group support and science has proven conclusively that our well-being is threatened by chronic loneliness. It’s so much more than just a bad feeling. Here is a link to the UCLA Loneliness Scale. I encourage you to take a minute and take the test. Are you one of the 40% of Americans struggling with this problem?
Lonely in a Hyperconnected World, Part 1 of 8
The Centers for Disease Control recently labeled loneliness as the next American epidemic. In my work life with those facing aging or serious illness I saw profound loneliness all the time, and as a survivor of spousal suicide, my family was on the receiving end of its gravest consequences. Fighting loneliness is my passion. I will describe American loneliness in this series of articles, and I encourage you to share them with others. During the series, you will have a chance to take the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a self-assessment tool. And this Fall I will lead a Writing to Reconnect small group gathering on Thursday mornings as a place to have fun with creative writing and make new connections here at church. So, join me on the journey to awareness. Church can be such a healer in our hyperconnected world.
Almost 43 million adults are chronically lonely, and Cigna Healthcare conducted a study last year and found that 18-22-year olds are the loneliest age group. That study also found that almost half of us sometimes or always feel alone or left out and don’t have meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis. 30% of us feel like people don’t really understand us and 40% of us sometimes or always feel isolated and believe that our relationships aren’t meaningful. These are stunning statistics, if you think about them, and says that something is genuinely wrong.
Census data tells us that our lifestyles are contributing
because more and more we are physically alone. 25% of households have only one
person, 50% of the population is unmarried, marriage rates and number of
children per household have declined and divorce is up among those 50 and older.
Unfortunately, suicide is also up in this age group, 30% since 1999. Among
middle aged men, it is up a staggering 50%.
There are powerful, but silent, social forces driving all this isolation and distress and we will explore them together. It’s my hope to get you motivated to action, then to work beside you to build a sanctuary against loneliness here at church, a place where we understand and respect our biological need for connection, choose to fight against the cultural influences that isolate us from each other, bring the lonely among us back into the loving arms of community, and enrich the social fabric of each parishioner’s life.