Don’t you just love a good paradox? We tend to assume that lonely people lack friends and live in a garret; turns out that this is one of those stereotypes that has to go. Utne Reader published a piece in its March/April issue called Lonely Together, suggesting that loneliness is common among people with active social lives, and deeply wounding. Lots of relationships look superficially like fun, but fail to satisfy our needs. It explores recent research by John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, who thinks that one in four of us does not have a trusted confidant; serious, troubling loneliness affects 20% of us, if we ever told the truth. Perhaps we don’t, because we take being lonely as evidence that we are not personally understood or valued, even if successful, smart, and surrounded with cool people. And some of us secretly think we are doomed to be lonely. Especially nonconformists.
Companionship is a fundamental human need, as basic as food; loneliness, like hunger, is a warning sign, says Cacioppo. Loneliness, like physical starvation, has consequences for our health; it can lead to depression that lingers for a year or more, as well as elevated levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, associated with lower cognitive performance, lower immune function, and elevated blood pressure. Perversely, loneliness can sabotage the natural process of making friends. Cacioppo finds that lonely people often walk around braced for disappointment about the friendliness and interest of others, and blame themselves. He thinks this negative thinking is self-fulfilling, but responds to cognitive therapies. But for that to happen, loneliness must first be taken seriously.
Social media like Facebook don’t impress Cacioppo as a response to loneliness, unless you really do live in a hermitage on a mountaintop. He thinks that they’re fine for networking and for established relationships with people who have moved away, but that people who use social media for companionship, become more lonely and depressed. I have lots of questions. If that were true, what draws people to the online social world, to the point that the DSM-V team is reportedly considering internet addiction as a possible new psychiatric disorder, with Facebook addiction as a variant? If Facebook friend lists are often more contacts than friends, is that because the medium doesn’t lend itself to close relationships, leaving us busy but lonely? Or are we, on our own, choosing to build our lives with superficial contacts, useful but not soul-nourishing?
Professionals are wary and not afraid to say so. A year ago, Huffington Post published one therapist’s perspective in a piece called Is Your Facebook Addiction a Sign of Loneliness? Lisa Haisha’s assumptions are that time on Facebook is escapism, distraction from meaningful work, and a replacement for human interaction, rather than a new form of it. Loneliness, she says, comes from realizing that you have Facebook instead of real human relationships; you are trying in vain to fill the emptiness with something that cannot. Who wouldn’t be depressed? I am left wondering, still, if this unease is cultural, or generational, or whether Facebook really does promote loneliness in the guise of an undemanding, carefree good time. A lot like real life, come to think of it, until our hearts call for something deeper and more demanding.