“They're sharing a drink called loneliness, but at least its better than drinking alone.”
The song is about a variety of patrons in a bar. They are perhaps engaged, or not. There is a collectivity in the characterization. As detached or disengaged as they may be, they are together somewhere. There is a strength in connectivity. In The Great Good Place
(August 2021), I strove to suggest that there is a decrease in our socialization. We are struggling as a society to be social.
This is not new. I note in that post the Bowling Alone (2000) critique of our increasingly insular society. Before the pandemic, before technology, we were drifting apart. Life, as they say sometimes, is hard. We face challenges, work frantically, and strive too hard. We are bombarded by the challenges of the day-to-day, our world, work, and commitments. We are way too prone thereafter to sitting in our little houses, tuned in to the television, social media, or the internet. Home is a sanctuary, quiet, and largely within our control. It is peace.
Is it so surprising that we turn inward? In an earlier age, there were local joints and hangouts. I remember as a kid heading to a particular roadhouse periodically. It was in the middle of nowhere, but everyone you saw was a local. Literally, it was a spot where everyone knew your name. And there was community. I remember the adults in those days belonged to country clubs, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts, the Elk's Lodge, and more. They gathered, conversed, lamented, complained, and vented. In the community, there was interaction and engagement.
Long before streaming video, we began to rent discs and watch at home. Long before the scourge of social media, we began to isolate. Long before the recent SARS-CoV-2, there was a trend away from interaction. This is perhaps because society has become polarized by our differences and has come to fail utterly at recognizing our similarities. We are polarized, insular, and isolating. And we are passing it on to our kids.
I have lamented our seclusion. We may relish it and crave it at times. But, I crave ice cream as well. Let's face it, a steady diet of either is likely not so smart (I will hear from the dairy folks on this).
Well, at least according to the Surgeon General, I am vindicated.
In Constant or Persistent non-Trauma
(January 2016), I noted the contention that "sitting is the new smoking." Sitting all day, every day, is not good for you. I have often advocated getting up and getting out. Let me say it again, go walking. Now. 100 steps. Do 101 tomorrow. Make that daily outing and daily increase a habit. Pretty soon you will be walking a mile, then two, then (well, you get the point). You did not get sedentary overnight, let's not get our expectations up to end it overnight.
But, the Surgeon General (SG) now says that Loneliness poses risks as deadly as smoking, according to the Associated Press. It reports that a voluminous report (81 pages)
has recently been delivered by the SG, concluding that "loneliness in the U.S. poses health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily." This is associated with societal and financial costs.
This is serious, impacting a huge portion of society. The conclusion is that human interaction is important in a variety of ways. The SG says that social engagement is "something we need for survival." He claims that "millions" of people in this country are struggling with disconnect, isolation, and loneliness. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that some are turning to substances, and social media, and streaming in reaction. Maybe there is room for each in a balanced life, but each poses serious threats with too much volume.
Where are we failing? It appears everywhere. We are less engaged in "worship houses, community organizations and even (with our) own family members in recent decades"). Intriguingly, "The number of single households has also doubled over the last 60 years." We are eating, breathing, and living alone. We are perhaps happy in our little abodes. But our isolation is dangerous to our health. Not because alone is bad, but because too much alone is bad (you wouldn't eat ice cream for breakfast, or would you?)
The AP acknowledges this is not a new problem, but places some blame on COVID-19 nonetheless. It blames employers and schools for sending folks home, and it blames us for going along. The great panic around COVID-19 was a huge detriment on mental health. It seems we volitionally dropped our contacts, withdrew, and shielded. A little too much perhaps. But, certainly too much now that the pandemic has passed. We must emerge from our self (or government)-imposed isolation.
It seems that we are spending about a third of the time we used to with friends. The report says that in 2020 we "spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends." But around the turn of the century, that was 60 minutes. That is likely due in large part to the lure of social media and its vacuous and false promise of satiation. Those "friend" and "connections" and "followers are not your friends. They are fine adjuncts, but not substitutes for real social interaction, real friends. And some are apparently bots.
Social media (beware, you are technically consuming it now) is a diet of candy, soda, donuts, and alcohol. There is no substance for the most part. There is little nutrient (this blog is the exception). There is nothing but that which harms us: cholesterol, fat, sugar, and worse. As we consume social media, we are not nurturing ourselves. When is the last time you read a book? How about the last time you went to a book club meeting? When did you last attend a community function or stand in your front yard chatting with a neighbor?
That is not to say that we cannot crave things. I crave chocolate also, but that does not mean my body is being honest with me. We may crave alone time, the ease or relative anonymity of social media, the comfort of our chair, and a favorite movie. We can enjoy those things, but we have to recognize the threat of a constant diet of nutritionless pablum. This is inextricably intertwined with some of our greatest challenges.
How can we get back together? What will it take to draw us back to the service club, the bowling league, or the local hangout? My view may seem obvious, but I am not convinced it is a "metaverse," the "next" social media, or a "virtual" anything. I am convinced we need to be in the room, in the moment, and in the mix. How do we get there? How do we get others there? Most importantly, how do we get the young, the next generation, there?
Perhaps our isolation is also driven by the failure of honest disagreement. A recent social media exchange I witnessed brought forth some fair criticism of the failures of civility. I have seen people roasted on social media for having divergent points of view. I have pitied many a small mind and insular mindset there. There is lots of "its not me, it's them." I have lamented various swells of groupthink and complacency. I have waited for some change, and worried over the prophecy of Idiocracy
(20th Century 2006).
If I don't agree with you, that does not make me wrong. If my beliefs are upsetting to you, consider that yours may likewise upset me. Does that mean we cannot discuss? For many, it unfortunately does. I repeatedly see on social media "I don't think I can have a conversation with you." People withdraw from differences and distinctions and seek the comfort of an echo chamber somewhere. That is unrealistic. Get out and interact with people in the real world. Listen to their opinions or lunacy. You need not endorse it, but experience it.
Get out. Engage. Interact. Experience. Advocate. Disagree. Be respectful, social, and present. It is time for society to regain the social.
The time has come to get back together. This loneliness pandemic is dangerous and threatening. And worse, it is more likely to affect the young ("ages 15 to 24") more perniciously than the rest of us. Let's face it, there is a natural gregariousness with youth. Us old folks tend to be a bit more naturally isolated. We expect to become less engaged as we age, but the youth are spending less and less time with friends. They are not out and about as we were in the day, and that needs to change. Many of them have no room to decrease their social interaction as they age because their current interaction is near zero already.
I cannot pass up the chance to say "let's do it for the children." How that has been overused in our history.
Before loneliness begins to kill us, it is time to change. Before loneliness drives us to a "greater risk of stroke and heart disease," we need to act. Before the threats of "depression, anxiety and dementia" come home to roost, we must re-engage. The SG notes these are real risks.
There is room for discussion of the how. Certainly, there are potential for social organizations to engage. What service clubs are looking for members? What opportunities are there in your current sphere? Are you a club or organization member? Have you invited your friends to join? Have you reached out to co-workers?
The report of the SG suggests that there are opportunities here for the traditional social engines to engage us. It looks to "workplaces, schools, . . . community organizations" and more. But let's not wait for the organizations to come to us. Let us each engage with some such opportunities and strive to encourage others to do the same.
Let's put down those devices. Let's eschew the Nomophobia
(November 2014). Let's get together and talk, laugh, and contradict (respectfully). Let's put away political correctness and groupthink and engage people who don't share our views. Let's hear them out. Let's build interaction, community, and our health.