I heard Adam Robinson state that there is a very bad loneliness epidemic in America, if not the world. He was quite alarmist by the concept that we Americans are lonelier than ever. Though I'm confident we'd all agree we have a phone addiction, work too much, have smaller families, and generally relax too little, are we really that lonely?
In a survey by Cigna of 20,000 adults, over 50% reported feeling lonely or isolated. In an often linked poll by YouGov, 3 in 10 millennials often feel lonely or isolated. Previously an affliction faced by the elderly, it now impacts our youngest generations. UK even created their first minister of loneliness.
What's really interesting is the word 'lonely' prior to 1800 only meant 'to be alone'. Only after the Industrial Revolution did the modern meaning take form. To be lonely is to be lacking connection with others. Before, it was more common to live in close quarters--to be alone was to be in solitude, a respite from others.
Anecdotally, our lifestyles and philosophy towards what is important in life may drive us to be lonely. First, we place a heavy emphasis on remaining competitive in our individual careers. What we do is who we are. Even outside large, competitive cities, people are delaying marriage and kids due to careers.
Next, is materialism. In the rise of a consumer economy in the mid 20th century came an emphasis on consuming and credit creation. Studies has seen a connection between an emphasis on materialism and loneliness.
Lastly, for better or worse, the religious landscape has changed in America. Church attendance continues to fall. Meanwhile, the biggest contributor to a sense of community now leaves a very large gap to fill. This gap has only been filled with work and technology. Right now, the meaning in our lives and the sense of our community has not been adequately filled by the gaps left in church and family.
What can be done?
I used to be hard to get a hold of. I felt busy with work, caught up in the routine, focused on my job. On the weekends, I felt it was finally time for myself. I'd appreciate my solitude, but then regretted when people stopped contacting me. My network began to dwindle.
What I learned is that few people are active connectors. Aside from a few close friends, few actively pursue new connections and passively let networks come to them. Eventually they plateau or even stall altogether. From then on, I decided I would make an effort to stay connected: call frequently, make trips and plans, go out of my way, connect others. I've not always succeeded, but the mindset is there.
Work or career or side projects should never take over the role of friends, downtime, and family. Making an effort to spend that quality time each day or each week is worth the effort. And for the most part, your career is likely average, hence the popularity of early retirement.
In conclusion, it's important more than ever to be more active with our social networks. They will not happen for you. It's also important to be conscious about what provides a sense of community and meaning in your life, because facebook, the news cycle, and work won't cut it.