Is anybody there? How to overcome the loneliness epidemic

I feel so lonely. That phrase can reveal perhaps one of the most painful of all human experiences. What exactly does it mean when we say we are feeling lonely? Robert Weiss in 1973 did a study on the experience of loneliness. Resulting from his study, he came up with the terms emotional loneliness and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness refers to the perceived absence of a significant someone (i.e., a spouse), that is, a person one can rely on for emotional support during crises, who provides mutual assistance, and who affirms one’s value as a person. Social loneliness refers to the perceived presence/absence of quality friendships or family connections.  In addition, Robin Dunbar discovered a third dimension known as collective loneliness, which refers to a person’s valued social identities or “active network” (i.e., group, school, team, or national identity) wherein an individual can connect to similar others at a distance in the collective space.

Hopefully, the research session didn’t bore you too much. i just wanted to give some perspective from an empirical standpoint before I give my own evaluation. Loneliness concerns me as it is being called an epidemic by mental health outlets worldwide, and has long been recognized as a leading contributor to suicide. As is now public knowledge, humans are social creatures. We have a relational dimension to our being. Loneliness is where that whole dimension of our being is in a deficit. My question to myself before writing this blog is why are we struggling with it so much now than perhaps ever before? Based on empirical findings and my own interactions amongst peers, a potential cause is social media and technology on a larger scale.

You might say, but modern technology allows us to connect faster and a broader scale more than any other time in human history. You are exactly right in that statement. However, communication does not fix loneliness. Relationships do, specifically intimate ones. Intimacy refers to an emotional, mental and spiritual closeness with someone. One with whom we can share joys and pains, doubts and fears without concern of the other person leaving or condemning us. Texting, social media and all of the various apps allow us to easily and rapidly communicate with one another. People from all over the world can have conversations with one another (and share great memes). This does not mean we are building close relationships, though. We may have followers and Facebook “friends,” but not ones with whom we walk through and share our lives with.

Loneliness traditionally was thought of as a concern for the elderly, which it certainly is. It is also being recognized as more of a problem in teens and younger adults as well. Your brain and body are wired to make connections. That is why you have senses, nerve endings and memories. We connect to things and make meaning from them. When we just text and virtually communicate, we miss out on the sight, sound and touch of the person. All of those aspects are crucial in fostering that closeness. Now my fellow men, you might be thinking “Well I do not need intimacy or any of that emotional, relational stuff.” You couldn’t be more wrong. The loneliness epidemic is being recognized as just as prevalent in men.

While married women are being shown to express loneliness more than married men, single men are being shown to suffer from loneliness more than single women. Women are more socially minded then men, which is why we attribute more of a relational nature to them than men. Women also are more likely to self-disclose than men. However, men have the same need for friendships and other relationships. We express it differently, as we express emotions differently. That is ok, men and women are different by design (a big topic for a later day). Regardless of gender, humans need to have close relationships. The amount you need may differ based on personality, but the quality aspect remains the same. Introverts are susceptible to loneliness, as being introverted just means you may need less social interaction and thrive on smaller social settings and solitude. We introverts still need close relationships, I can personally attest to that. Some of the most miserable, angry people I know are introverts who are trying to be islands.

Lastly, do not assume being able to communicate with a multitude of people online makes for close, crucial relationships. That assumption is held by many younger people and is why they feel so alone, in spite of having many online interactions. Skype and face timing are great, but spending real time with someone in real space has no substitute. I am not saying technology and social media is itself an evil and that we should forsake it, but that we should moderate it and keep it in its place. Above all, remember, Jesus is a friend closer than a brother and he will never leave nor forsake you.

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)                                    

~Jesus Christ

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