12/4/2023 07:15

All Separately Alone

Every so often an academic study appears in the news quantifying just how large a fraction of the population is experiencing loneliness every day. Most measure subjective (and self-reported) feelings of loneliness. Apparently the researchers have no tools for reaching these lonely people which will connect them more closely than one-and-done anonymous questionaires. The reason people are lonely is the manner in which we present our surveys about being lonely.

I wonder what would happen if these social researchers provided a set of questions to small groups of participants and asked them to converse and develop convergent responses. "How often do you personally and individually experience feelings of loneliness or isolation?" Well, pretty often in a society of isolated people but not as much while you have convened this group on work on the set of questions.

We have organized society so individualistically that even those of us who enjoy being alone for much of the time find ourselves more isolated than we like to be. We know this is true because the individual answers to those social surveys tell us so. Can we even call them "social" surveys when they are taken in isolation and only let participants talk about the extent to which life has become unsocial?

Everybody is talking about loneliness but nobody is doing anything about it! Or so it seems.

But that is not completely fair. There is a certain kind of loneliness which is addressed fairly regularly. That is the aloneness of major holidays: "I am comfortably connected with other people except when my usual contacts go visit family for the holiday and I find myself uncharacteristically alone." The response to that narrow class of isolation is to provide huge gatherings of strangers in noisy public spaces where anyone is welcome to engage in superficial conversation for a short period of time.

Such community meals are reportedly enjoyed by many -- not least by those who come with their family or with a band of close friends and therefore are not objectively isolated to begin with. Others too may experience a transient connection which at least staves off the sense of isolation for the moment.

Loneliness every day is something else. An hour with strangers is a reminder of the lack of close friends. A gathering on major holidays emphasizes the lack of gathering the on other 362 days. Those people with even moderate hearing issues are not well served by the jumble of voices in a large public space. A person who is faceblind would likely leave the meal with no mechanism to reconnect with anyone who was first met in that setting. Anyone with any sort of social anxiety would probably have stayed home.

In our society the usual approach to addressing loneliness or isolation is to place the burden on the individual: "Here is a broachure or a website or a podcast with tips for individuals." Such a publication will have such topics as "How do I know if I am at risk?" and "What can I do to stay connected?" by which the authors obviously mean "What can YOU do for yourself?"

Well and good; in an individualistic society the individuals expect and desire to take responsibility whereever they have the capacity to act. Individuals adopt beneficial behaviors they know about or can imagine and smart suggestions will help. (I say "smart" suggestions so as to minimize the ones which basically advise isolated people to get out more with no practical help for making that happen.)

In actual reality we have made connecting with other people complicated. Getting old, or sick, or poor puts up more barriers to connection which need to be navigated. In actual reality our culture and communities need to step up provide alternatives.

By which I mean, of course, that someone else should be providing the answer to all of us who are at risk. Get with it, people.