Loneliness, like addiction, may be among the inescapable features of our modern industrial communities. Yet since these conditions are generally treated as individual problems originating in either maladaptive behaviour or biologically determined predispositions, treatment plans offered to depressed, addicted and disconnected people rarely take into consideration what author George Monbiot calls Western society’s “epidemic of loneliness”:
Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as the disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents—all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.
Loneliness has become a major public health issue, with multiple other associated illnesses. The commonness of the phenomenon of loneliness reflects the relative health of our communities as a whole, and how they tend to inspire or undermine empathetic connecting. When communities fail to provide sufficient opportunities to meaningfully connect, mass addiction is one of the unfortunate results.
Psychology researcher Bruce Alexander has shown that communities based on free market capitalism lack socialization opportunities in a way that would otherwise prevent conditions like addiction from becoming epidemic-like crises: “There is little drug consumption in the natural environment and a lot when the people or animals are placed in an environment that produces social and cultural isolation.” The rats in Alexander’s Rat Park experiments only pushed the levers for cocaine or heroin when the creatures were kept isolated from their rat-buddies. Yet isolating the rodents in cages had characterized almost every experiment on drug addiction until Rat Park. When Alexander instead gave the little rats generous opportunities to connect, the results were dramatic: addiction waned and even disappeared in rat communities predicated on socialization. When he put the rats back into individual cages, the animals again developed severe addictions.
So if rats are such socially needy creatures that they become heroin addicts by merely being alone, how much more vulnerable are humans to the forces of isolation and a lack of what Dr Alexander calls, “the psychologically sustaining” aspect of culture?
From another angle, consider also how routinely market capitalist forces inspire a sense of disconnection in how they market their products. Advertisements in the beauty industry design campaigns to erode the consumer’s sense of social well-being, exploiting feelings of disconnection and shame. It helps to sell something expensive if your customers believe it will fill an existential hole that your industry created in the first place! At that point they’ll pretty much buy anything from you.
Furthermore we are currently exposed to ever more sophisticated marketing that relies on the same equation: lonely people buy things in order to repair feelings of disconnection. Heroin is only one of a zillion answers to this kind of thing. Addiction to social media has become another.
Research keeps piling up on the possibility that platforms like Facebook exploit powerful feelings of disconnection among users. Rather than fulfilling the vague promise to revolutionize democratic information sharing, which most of us bought as an idea in the 1980s and 90s, the age of the internet is now dominated by silicon-valley oligarchies. Mark Zukerberg announces that his company is addressing fake news or other bits of bad information, without ever addressing the possibility that the platform itself is a set up for disconnection, setting in motion the very substrate of addictive behaviour.
The social media companies we now rely upon for our daily activities, furthermore employ algorithms designed specifically to make users feel like we are in conflict or crises. Multiple whistleblowers from within the hallowed vestiges of these massive corporations have now come forward to advise users to quit until the owners of these platforms take seriously the addictive and corrosive nature of their company’s product. Such people have outed the fact that these platforms were designed from their inception to encourage feelings of fear and loneliness- not unlike the manner and design of casinos, which make lavish profits from gamblers feelings of loss (Lanier, Jared, 10 Arguments).
For these reasons, loneliness and addiction are not just individual problems, and a paradigm shift is required for us to see that we may have become more like the rats in the cages, than we are like the rats in the park. Treatment strategies such as psychotherapy and pharmacology work for sufferers of addiction, in part since they are aimed at helping us feel more connected. But these must also somehow address the vast oppression of loneliness, otherwise we can only meet the problem half way.
An analysis of how we structure our communities should be urgently undertaken- especially by the politically motivated left- so that therapies can continue to accommodate the known socio-cultural factors that play into mental health problems. A fractured, siloed, us-versus them approach, which unfortunately characterizes many of our political aims, will simply not be sufficient to address people’s underlying feelings of loneliness and shame.