Our loneliness epidemic is a political problem, too

Written by David Masciotra via Salon on 8/11/18 

A killer stalks the American street. Its weaponry is subtle, but it is responsible for the demolition of countless lives, and the damage of many communities. After it sneaks into a home, it creates social pathology and helps harvest political cruelty.

It is loneliness. The United States of America has created a culture of solitary struggle and isolation. It should not shock too many careful observers who consider the predictable consequences of building an entire civilization on the mud and sewage of cutthroat, competitive corporate capitalism. The true meaning of icy bromides like, “rugged individualism,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “no free lunch,” is not a celebration of individual freedom as much as it is a “you’re on your own” ethic, or lack thereof, resulting in communal fissure and political friction.

Standards of living the U.S. are generally high, and yet suicide has steadily increased in every state, the homicide rate remains off the charts relative to the rest of the developed world, liver disease from alcohol abuse is on the rise, and opioid overdoses have become so routine in major cities and small towns than many police officers carry, alongside a gun and badge, a dosage of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid OD.

In their bracing and brilliant book, “A General Theory of Love,” psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon put America on the couch, and their diagnosis is rather grim. “A good deal of modern American culture,” they write, “is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.”

That which people most crave are the elements and effects of love — hospitality, community, solidarity — a general feeling of belonging and appreciation coupled with the exercise of moral agency for the benefit of other people. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “actively willing the good of the other.”

How much of American life, and American public policy, demonstrates indifference to the good of the other?

Whether it is the poisoning of drinking water in Flint, Michigan or East Chicago, Indiana, the daily crisis of inadequate health care for millions of sick, elderly and disabled people, or the precarity of life in desolate outposts of rural America, the crime-ridden inner cities, or Native American reservations without the population density for a large casino, the dominant voice of American politics and business amplifies insouciance in the face of human suffering.

It is not only the poor who feel the pain of an increasingly cold society.

Cigna, the health insurer, recently surveyed over 20,000 American adults, and found that over half consider themselves lonely, and feel that the people who surround them are “not necessarily with them.” Two-fifths told surveyors that they lack meaningful relationships, self-applying the label “isolated individual.”

Harvard Business Review recently reported that Americans are the “loneliest workers in the world,” and what is perhaps most troubling is that the researchers responsible for both that finding and the Cigna study document how the loneliness is actually the worst among young adults. It appears that the problem is escalating in severity and commonality, rather than getting better.

Medical experts draw on a mountain of evidence to argue that loneliness is a health hazard. It causes more stress in the life of any patient, and people without strong ties to family and friends suffer from higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and many other serious conditions. Due to the despair and depression that loneliness can often cause, they are also likelier to overeat, drink alcohol in excess and smoke cigarettes.

The personal and private toll of isolation is devastating, but it is also clear that an epidemic of loneliness is also destructive toward democracy. Democratic governance demands that people know each other, listen to each other, and work together in an attempt to wrestle compromise out of conflict for the purpose of the public interest and cause of the common good.

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In his study of “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville credited “voluntary associations” with the strength of the American Republic. He identifies many flaws in America — greed, excessive materialism, too much competition — but one of the young nation’s great virtues was the willingness of its people to collaborate on community projects. If de Tocqueville was correct about the essentiality of voluntary cooperation, it is only logical that democracy will decay when those associations begin to disintegrate.

People threatening each other on social media over ideological difference, believing that half the country is a demonic force intent on pulling America into hell, and increasingly susceptible to outlandish conspiracy theories seem like symptoms of social disconnection more than political passion.

Dr. Richard S. Schwartz and Dr. Jacqueline Olds, both psychiatrists, provide thorough and profound analysis of American isolation in their book, “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century.” They identify loneliness, in examination of depression in individuals and disrepair in the larger culture, as the “elephant in the room.”

“People in our society drift away from social connections,” Schwartz and Olds explain, “because of both a push and a pull. The push is the frenetic, overscheduled, hypernetworked intensity of modern life. The pull is the American pantheon of self-reliant heroes who stand apart from the crowd.”

I emailed Olds to inquire if loneliness is also the “elephant in the room” in American politics. Is there a cyclical relationship between loneliness and bad public policy ? Does individuated isolation contribute to public policy that undermines community, which then enhances loneliness?

“American public policy is more often in the business of protecting people's individual freedoms rather than preserving a sense of community. So in that sense, our legal policies keep us apart more than they help us to achieve a sense of community,” Olds wrote back.

She elaborated to delineate the connection even further: “Our tendency toward self sufficiency and distaste for mutual dependence is part of what has led to an increasing sense of loneliness. In addition, the more isolated we feel, the less we feel a sense of compassion for our fellow men and women. So yes, a greater frequency of loneliness leads to public policies that [are] less compassionate.”

Journalists and pundits provide many theories for the disastrous levels of partisan hostility in American politics, and while it is certainly a multifaceted development, with everything from social media to the rabid resistance to truth and understanding in the right wing media, the “elephant in the room” might stomp around this subject too.

In my exchange with Olds, she said, “When we feel more isolated, there is more of a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As Robert Putnam (the author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”) has described, social capital, meaning a sense of connectedness and social participation, increases when we participate in community activities, associations and projects. If we give up our participation in local community associations, we lose some of our compassion for the ‘others’; because we don't know much about them since we don't regularly talk with them. I think comparing notes in a civil way is the antidote to a polarized society in which we don't understand a point of view other than our own. If we are so lonely that we have no one to compare notes with, we tend to become more polarized.”

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has often written about how wealth inequality creates “social distance.” The gulf separating the rich and the poor, and even the insecure middle class with the impoverished, will only widen in a culture full of lonely and atomized individuals. The competitive impulse at the heart of American society, along with centuries of racial resentment from the white majority, will worsen income inequality, because it will make people less likely to empathize with the poor.

Dr. Jacqueline Olds, during our correspondence on loneliness and partisanship, explained that lack of communal connection “is likely to make us less sympathetic to anyone who we see as a having less than we do, because we are worried that someone will make us give up our hard won material gains to help them. And when people are feeling lonely, their material belongings and sense of superiority might be all that they feel they have.”

The vicious symbiosis of loneliness and socially ruinous public policy appears overwhelming. Policies might improve if people become less lonely, but how do we create conditions that encourage unification without better policies?

Even when the consequences of a fractured and, in many ways, malevolent society continue to manifest on a daily basis, many Americans, most consequentially, those with power in government and influence in media, continue to preach a poisonous doctrine. Witness all of the celebratory zeal surrounding a marginal increase in economic growth over the past year to find all the evidence necessary to damn American culture for its lack of moral maturity.

Crucial to the character of the problem is that the American ideal is, in practice, not something that should provoke pursuit, as it often does, but retreat. As Olds summarized it, “Individuals in our society have made the mistake of using their prosperity to try and have things their own way; so they live alone, drive alone, shop from home, and work from home. This is seen as a privileged life, when in fact, it is quite isolating. But we have not recognized it as such, so these are things many people work toward.”

Americans are so lost in the American dream that they refuse to open their eyes to a troubling, but potentially more liberating, waking life.