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The “I am so lonely” era in America

I am so lonely

I’ve already written about social isolation in America and how nervous we all seem to be, so I won’t belabor the point around the phrase “I am so lonely.”

In fact, I’m going to shift the format of how I normally write blog posts and hit you with a money quote up front. This is from an article on “emotions as power” in handling chronic stress, which is relatively normative at workplaces these days. Ahem:

“The reason loneliness is important for us to think about is it’s right under our noses,” Murthy said. And it is a growing epidemic: In the 1980s, 20% of adult Americans said they were lonely, he said. Today, the percentage has doubled to 40%, “despite the fact that we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization,” he said. “It’s because technology in some ways has been looked at as the solution to connection. We have a lot of social media platforms. But the problem is that we have forgotten that not all relationships are the same.”

Let that one sink in for a second.

I am so lonely: The paradox of the modern age

There’s a study I read once — in an Aziz Ansari book, no less — about 1932 Philadelphia. Virtually every woman there married someone from a 20-block radius or so. Makes sense. We barely had air travel, we certainly didn’t have cell phones, etc. Connectivity in 1932 was relatively “local-only,” give or take. Now people marry people from countries they’ve never even been to (that was my deal for a bit). I can watch a video of some girl doing hula-hoop in Laos live if I want. Connectivity is essentially normative now.

But yet, everyone feels lonely. The “I am so lonely” number has friggin’ doubled even though we have all these ways to connect. What? Why?

Well, the quote above begins to answer it. Not all relationships are the same, and not all people have the same affinity or context for social media as their friend, spouse, dog walker, cousin, ex-lover, or whomever else you might need to interact with. Some people done live their whole lives on Facebook or Insta. Others totally avoid it. So if you’re seeking that connection but you don’t find it because the other person wants it to be through LinkedIn (ha!), well then: I am so lonely.

The curation problem of social media

Most social media is curated bullshit. You know you work with some guy who’s f’ing every assistant he gets, but then on Facebook it’s him, the wife, the two kids, and the Golden Retriever in church clothes. (Yes, the dog is also wearing church clothes.) 147 likes. Everyone chiming in like “Beautiful, perfect family!” and “Love you, Rob and Karen!” (I made these names up. I don’t know a Rob or a Karen really.) Meanwhile Rob probably has gonorrhea and Karen hasn’t been happy since 2001. But what do you see on social media? You see middle class marker perfection.




 

We don’t talk about this enough, but this makes people lonely. They think they’re not doing life right. They haven’t hit the marks. In some form or fashion, they are “behind.” I am so lonely and I don’t have what Rob and Karen have. Look, in reality if you had what they really have, you’d be more depressed. But in the moment of photos like that, you don’t know that. You just know what’s in front of you. When we talk about Facebook depression or social media making the rat race worse, this is what we mean.

Quick note on “I am so lonely” and work

I write about work — why it sucks, how to make it better — a lot. Let me just say this on loneliness and work. You typically get a job through a low-context hiring process, then have a low-end to average boss. People sit in cubicles and there are walls/doors on offices. It’s supposed to be all about collaboration and teamwork, but it really isn’t. (Maybe at some “high market cap tech companies,” sure.) It’s mostly about hitting targets, busting humps, and looking good up the chain. That’s a very lonely, isolating experience for many people — but because it’s “what you gotta do,” no one really talks about it openly. Yep.

Let’s loop it back with another pull quote 

From the same article linked above:

Murthy continued: “The kind of gratification and nourishment that you get from a deep relationship with someone who understands you and whom you understand is different from somebody you friended on Facebook [after you saw them] for two minutes [at] a conference three years ago” and had very little interaction with since then. “Those are not equivalent relationships.” Research shows that online tools can help strengthen offline relationships. “But if online platforms become a substitute and in fact diminish our offline relationships, that’s when things can be a little bit dangerous and we run into challenges with isolation,” he said.

“… and in fact diminish our offline relationships…” is something to chew on there, as is “run into challenges with isolation.”

What would you say? Is this truly an isolating time despite our myriad ways to connect? Are more and more people saying “I am so lonely” on the regular?

Ted Bauer

3 Comments

  1. Perhaps we need to be better at separating the transformative/messianic *potential* of social media platforms with the less sexy reality that they’re simply tools that make it *easier* to communicate, but provide no guarantee of inherent inclusivity or connectedness.

    Methinks we’ve been duped by tech-era snake oil salespeople into believing Facebook will be our salvation. Seems there’s something really human about putting all our faith into a person or thing and hoping they/it will deliver us from our shortcomings.

  2. Does the loneliness vary by generation? Will the millennials be less lonely because they grew up with social platforms?

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