Perhaps in many ways we really are on our own.
In the final analysis we are of course, but many other changes now place in a less social environment and this runs counter to our needs as social animals. The idea of loneliness may seem a curious thing in a ‘mass’ society filled with social media, screen distractions and anxieties about being, if anything, too connected. As perhaps we increasingly realise, these connections are ‘social’ to the extent that we are interacting with others, yet the quality and depth of those connections if quite another thing. Facebook ‘friends’ are not companions or necessarily those we confide in and share daily experiences (though confidences and experiences are of course shared by many). In our lives many of us will feel a sense of frustration and even despair at a lack or absence of social contact with others in ways that are more meaningful and close than social media can deliver.
A whole host of social, economic, technological and demographic changes are implicated in these issues that suggest the possibility that social life is changing in really quite deep and unsettling ways. On holiday this summer I was struck by a family sitting for dinner in a beautiful riverside location, all four of them, two young children and the two parents, were looking at their phones. One of them would remark about something or other that was amusing or an interesting fact they had learned while none of the others responded when they did so. Even in leisure we find there isn’t enough time or focus for us to engage those around us or closest to us. The world of work is little better and likely to be much worse. Email corrodes human contact while weighing many people down with distractions that feel easier than phoning others and make us sufficiently busy to shun the possibility of a coffee and chat. We claim to despise ourselves for being so busy while submitting to the mantra of being busy, almost professionally so. Similar problems exist for parents in relation to children and, more deeply, for the elderly in relation to those around them. Increasing numbers of people living on their own, family break-up and long working days all play a further role in diminishing the core of social life as a space and experience of interaction with the faces and voices of others.
Perhaps ironically to claim the value and importance of such experiences might be seen as od-fashioned and yet, as we increasingly find, we realise that the basis of a meaningful life comes not just through self-examination, but also through who and how we associate with others. Problems like obesity, diet, exercise, senses of self-worth and personal vitality are all linked to the quality of our social relationships. Meanwhile the need to have, rather than to experience and simply to be with others, further erodes the sense we have of ourselves as social animals. Our intense materialism and holding dear of objects and possessions that are lifeless yet priceless to us further erodes the social around us. As someone once said, there is no such thing as society, and perhaps, while that was and is not true, it is MORE true than it was even then. Some of this comes from the designs of governments of many political stripes seeking to bring the mechanisms of the market into more aspects of social life that run to the rhythm of notions of trust, reciprocity, civic gain and social benefit. Such changes have not only altered the landscape of key institutions like schools, universities and hospitals but have also changed our sense of ourselves into, again, less social animals – we are on our own and it is not the state or the church or another institution that might offer an ethic or possibility of care and interest in our well-being. This has served corporations well, not least the burgeoning of caring technologies with robots and programmes developed to keep the elderly happy, distracted and less lonely. Yet another perverse effect has been the increasing meaninglessness of work within such corporations in which those a layer from the top experience a sense of personal drift and anxiety in their own work and personal lives and to which the idea of occupational continuity and a career has become almost a thing of the past. Looking outside these lives there is of course a hunger for therapies and insulating ideas that seek to preserve a sense of meaning without togetherness. As organised religion becomes mistrusted still further there are few discoveries of belief systems and ideals that might also help to give us the sense of us in connection with and supportive of, and cared by others. This is less a call for belief for its own sake but rather the need to understand perhaps that our human condition and the anxiety of a finite existence compels us to think of what ethics and values we will live by when markets trump the call of national identity, religion or notions of community.
So let us return to the idea of loneliness itself. What is it and why might we see it as a social problem. Of course the reality is that many of us have had or will have experiences of a profound sense of aloneness that persists even for those with busy lives, families and a sense of status and standing in the world. It also clearly exists for those who are disconnected or who experience prejudice that isolates them within the communities and neighbourhoods they live in. Yet, as I have tried to indicate here, the idea of loneliness perhaps strikes to the much deeper core of what it means to be social and human and to understand how that world is being affected, eroded, changed and sometimes even improved by technologies and other shifts. In a context in which governments worldwide are cutting back on the public, the social, the municipal and the shared we would do well to wonder at the logic of these choices but also start to consider the more subtle impact of austerity on us and communities as social entities that profoundly require each other in order to thrive.