How bad is being lonely?

Director Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix) offers a poignant glimpse into the near future that most of us will be aging into. Curiously, the characters in this movie do not explicitly voice feelings of loneliness (at least not that I recall) yet manage to beautifully portray the striking feelings of yearning and despair through a soulful story line.

While a gorgeous, visually and emotionally poetic movie, Her teases us with the idea of a future molded by artificial intelligence that will (superficially) enrich our lives, maybe on all fronts but the relational. However, when we pause and give that plot summary more thought, somehow, the concepts that prompt this movie’s exploration of relationships in a new age do not sound alien or far-fetched as we count down to the end of another year.

We know that social network penetration and social media user numbers are staggering. In 2017, on average, we spent 135 minutes each day on social media. If we were to deduct the number of hours we are meant to be working, and the time spent on activities of daily living, then add in 2 hours 15 minutes of social media time into that mix, it is natural that we end up feeling like there is little room or time to think about much else. No time for self-care, no space to meet up with friends, and too busy to make time for hobbies.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, offers a mind-blowing statistic in this Time magazine piece: According to a 2010 survey by AARP, “over 40% of American adults suffer from loneliness, a condition that is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and more.” 

Related to the subjective feeling of loneliness is the idea of isolation. It is well-known in social psychology that both objective as well as perceived social isolation can be painful. The pain is beyond psychological; brain structures relevant to physical pain are activated too through experiences of isolation and ostracism. Field consultants and experts, even mean girls, know this: Exclusion and solitary confinement are meted out as punishment across different fields to inflict maximum pain onto an individual.

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Somewhat ironically, in the movie Her and in reality, we may be choosing to socially isolate ourselves voluntarily and using social platforms as a convenient excuse to ignore the realities of isolation. Having a lot of “friends” online may make us feel good for a split second, but it does not make us any healthier. A previous post also spoke of how social device usage not only merely promotes transient feelings of pleasure, this positive spark of emotion is likely to trigger addictive reaction (chasing the next social media high).

If feeling lonely is unhealthy

In relation to tackling feelings of loneliness, the aforementioned Time article encourages social connections that have been shown to be protective for people with cardiovascular disease, lower the risk of cancer, promote recovery in cancer patients, on top of facilitating physical pain management and relief.

With the weather turning cold, these last few weeks in 2017 may feel quietly distressing for some, whether it is actually being alone at home, safe from the wintry cold (objective isolation) or being lonely in a crowd (perceived social isolation). With some awareness of the dangers of loneliness and the potential benefits of human connection, what is the next step? The next post will cover simple actionable steps to promote self-care in this regard.