“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
-from the song, Eleanor Rigby, written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, released in 1966.
Being lonely is not just painful, it is a major contributor to a host of health problems including depression, sleep problems, obesity, and dementia. The importance of social networks–increasing our time spent with family and friends rather than being alone–is so well documented that both the medical and psychological communities are realizing it has the same relevance to health and longevity as things like not smoking or getting regular exercise.
In another well-known Beatles song, we seem to get by so much better “with a little help from our friends.”
Although there have always been lonely people in the world, their numbers are growing. In 2010, the American Association of Retired Persons conducted a survey of 3000 adults over 45 years old. A little over one-third admitted to being lonely compared to twenty percent only a decade earlier.
Some groups were shockingly hard hit. Half of those never married were lonely. Forty-three percent of adults aged 43-49 were lonely. Other prominent researchers estimate roughly 20 percent of Americans are unhappy due to loneliness. That’s 60 million people in America alone.
Similarly, twenty-five years ago, ten percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and fifteen percent said they had only one such good friend. When the same research was repeated in 2004, twenty-five percent of respondents said they had nobody to talk to, and twenty percent had only one close friend.
These undeniable facts fly in the face of the rapidly growing, ultra-connectivity supposedly gained through Facebook and other social media. Could social media be part of the problem? Or is it something else? Why are we becoming more and more lonely at the same time as we are more connected with the whole world via technology?
These questions were posed in an excellent, thought-provoking article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche, recently published in The Atlantic. Back in the 1990′s, scholars started calling the contradiction between this increased ability to connect and a lack of human contact the “Internet paradox.”
A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon showed that increased Internet usage was already coinciding with increased loneliness by the late 90′s. They found that Facebook users had slightly lower levels of “social loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with friends—but significantly higher levels of “family loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with family.
It may be that things like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, online gaming, etc. encourage more contact with people outside of our household, at the expense of our family relationships—or it may be that people who have unhappy family relationships in the first place seek companionship through other means.
“What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation,” says Marche, “is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity.”
Clearly the salve for loneliness includes more than just being connected to large numbers of people, many of whom you never see in person. It reminded me of the research conducted in the 1950′s by Harry Harlow with baby monkeys that everyone reads about in Psych 101. When baby monkeys were given the choice between a “mother” made of wire mesh and one made of soft cloth, the monkeys preferred the snuggly substitute–even when it lacked milk, and especially when they were scared and needed comforting.
Perhaps loneliness in America will continue to grow until we remember just how much human beings, large and small, need to touch and be touched – the old fashioned, snuggled-up, sitting in one another’s lap way- and if not with another human being, even a pet will do better than your laptop.
Lonely woman photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 2 May 2012