So, often I tell myself that after I read a book I should make some notes on any significant passages or ideas, so that next week, when someone asks me what the book was about, I may be able to respond. I hate it when I have read a book and cannot recall anything about it other than the general theme or plot. This short/long-term memory loss thing is frustrating and a bit ironic. It was just a couple years ago that I was on a binge reading about “memory” and especially how to retain it! I guess it didn’t work very well.
Anyway, I just read “Loneliness” by John Cacioppo and William Patrick. The book was non-fiction and focused on why we humans get lonely or depressed, and the authors reviewed a number of approaches to overcoming those conditions. I read it because I am on a binge reading about the impact of social media, technology and the effect our general pace of life has on our sanity. We seem to be disconnecting and disengaging with too much of life. The impact of that disconnect takes many forms, including but not limited to, isolation, suicide, depression and addiction. That is, we’re not doing well with this and I want to know more about it.
The book and the read is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s books (“Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” etc.). You get a dumbed-down but usually interesting and readable overview of a complex subject that often has a direct impact on your life, your decisions and how you process life in general. It’s an entertaining blend of behavioral economics, psychology, sociology and storytelling!
Here are some of my takeaways from “Loneliness:”
In the end, most if not all, of our behavior is a response to our evolutionary instinct for survival. For thousands of years humans have always found safety in their tribes – in groups.
We tend to stress out when we feel isolated or disconnected from a group.
Stress undermines our capacity to make sound decisions – to process information. Some of us, in the extreme, respond by buying assault rifles and killing as many people as we can.
When we’re outside the group, isolated to one degree or another, we are susceptible to manipulation by others, which is part of the reason cults and extremist groups are able to successfully recruit members. People desperately need the support, the feeling of security and interaction provided by membership in a group or groups.
To study and understand behavior or a condition such as loneliness, you need to be able to measure or quantify it some way. Cacioppo and Patrick reference and reprint (with permission) the “UCLA Loneliness Scale” which is a simple 20-question test. It’s an easy test and interesting to take.
Meaningful engagement in a group makes us live longer. Cacioppo and Patrick reference studies that show that middle-aged and older men who are not meaningfully engaged in groups are 50 percent more likely to die than those who are engaged.
Social isolation in the home is especially toxic for children. Single-parent homes, latchkey kids, spousal abuse and neglect take a great toll. Children who live in social or physical isolation have greatly diminished chances in school, within their peer groups, and later, in relationships or careers.
People need a tribe and they need a sense of purpose larger than themselves.
The book spends considerable time talking about the substantial therapeutic benefits of active participation in charitable activities – in helping people.
The final chapters talk about “today” – trends and context. In 1985 researchers asked a large pool of people “How many confidants do you have?” The most common response was three. In 2004 – nine years later – the same survey was conducted and the most common response was zero; 25 percent replied that they had no one at all with whom to talk openly and intimately.
A 2004 study by the World Health Organization reported that almost 10 percent of Americans suffered from depression or bi-polar disorder.
A 2007 survey by UNICEF of 21 wealthy nations reported that the U.S. came in second to last in terms of the welfare of its children; had the worst infant mortality rate; and had the second to worst exposure to violence and bullying, chaotic family structure and troubled relationships with family and friends.
The causes of much of this isolation and disconnectedness, as cited in the book, were numerous and ironically and frustratingly, part and parcel of “progress.” The American character that values independence and autonomous self-reliance has had a cost, and that is the loss of support from traditional sources including family, hometown, faith. Technology, mobility, careers, efficient modes of transportation, interstates, commoditized lifestyles, and our “flat world” have increasingly isolated us from what traditionally gave us cohesion, security and a meaningful sense of purpose. We need the stability and engagement of social gatherings on the porch, the street or the corner drugstore. We need our long–term relationships, engaged interaction with our neighbors. We miss the dignity, stability, and purposefulness found in multi generation households. And we need our faith.
We need to start reconsidering what is important – important individually
and as a society. We need, as was suggested in the book “to start thinking more about investing in “social capital” as a societal good – something that is seen as a personal and collective necessity – a major issue of personal, societal and public health.” What we want, how we measure success and how we actually live needs to change.