The Modern Problem of Loneliness

Because you live in Western society in the 21st century, you have a problem. If you were born 100 years ago or 2000 or 50,000 years ago, you would probably be a member of a small, tight-knit group of people you had known all your life. Nobody would have moved away, and you would probably have lived in the same place with the same group of people your entire life. Everybody you knew as a child would still be around and you would see them every day.

There would be, of course, no computers, no televisions — in fact, you would have very few forms of entertainment other than interacting with people you knew well.

You would have moved to a natural rhythm. No clocks, no alarm clocks, no time clocks or time pressures or even calendars. No schedule books.

Times have changed, haven't they? Many of the changes have created more loneliness and feelings of isolation than could ever have been possible in the past.

Most of us don't even know the names of our next door neighbors. You go off to work, away from your family, away from your neighborhood. You live a separate life, even from the people you live with. Almost all of us are in the same situation. Our families have moved all over the country. We don't even know where most of our school chums are. And we have more forms of entertainment than we know what to do with, and all of them are aggressively competing for our attention. New York Times Magazine reported that 14.2 percent of Americans moved to another community in one recent year. Only one fourth of U.S. teens expect to live in their hometowns when they grow up.

Even during the little time we actually spend with people we love, we are usually doing things like watching television and movies — we're together, but we're not getting any closer to each other.

Being close to people used to be natural and inevitable. You almost couldn't avoid having strong, close ties with many people. Times have changed. If you are going to have close relationships with people, you will have to do it deliberately. The circumstances no longer make it inevitable.

What do you think happens when you isolate an intensely social animal like a human being? You get depression, anxiety, stress, alienation, loneliness, alcoholism, etc., without ever recognizing that the source of these troubles is a lack of connection. The depressed or anxious thoughts a person has may be about work or self-esteem or about anything really, and no doubt people have been having thoughts like that throughout the ages. But what we no longer have is a tight-knit community of people we can talk openly to, or just comfortably be with. We don't have that buffering effect any more.

Feeling isolated, all by itself, causes negative feelings, which can cause you to obsess about what might be bothering you. But you may not correctly identify isolation as the cause. You might think of many other things to be upset about. But trying to fix those problems won't cure your negative feelings. What will make you feel better is feeling connected with others.

You can get closer to people, even in this society. It can have an enormous impact on your health and on your general feelings of happiness. I suggest you choose one person for now. Someone you already know. Keep that person in mind as you read about how to get closer to people with good listening.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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