Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
In Pursuit of Loneliness
A year or so ago, an alarming study was released that indicated that the death rate for middle-age white men was rising quickly. This was attributed to more drug and alcohol use, risky behavior, and suicide. It was counter-intuitive because we still think of this group as better off, financially, than other demographic groups. Indeed they are. So why?
I think it can be attributed to depression caused by being lonely. All the research I’ve seen about why people are happy concludes that it’s all about our relationships with other people. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t even matter how healthy you are. What makes you feel happy and valued is having good loving connections with other people.
A Cambridge University psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Schwartz linked loneliness to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s. A longitudinal study out of Brigham Young University demonstrated that socially isolated people who lived alone had a 26-32 percent greater risk of premature death. So why is loneliness on the increase? And why is it worse for men?
Much has been written about the ubiquitous smart phone and how it has isolated us from one another. We are all familiar with the disturbing spectacle in a restaurant where the entire table is silently looking at their phones.
Technology is clearly isolating, a supreme irony because in many ways it provides more timely and convenient means of communicating. Yet, people use technology when they are alone. Many people feel more comfortable communicating online than they do in person. The problem is, they lose the face-to-face communication skills. Families don’t even eat together as often any more. And when they do decide to spend an evening together, it’s often to stare at a streaming video on Netflix or to play video games; together but alone.
Somebody remarked recently that Donald Trump has no real friends. That may sound strange, but I suspect it’s true of many men. Deborah Tannen, the linguist, has filmed men and women in conversation. It’s striking how, when women converse with each other, they face each other and look at each other. Men will often look in another direction when they converse. I think close, intimate conversation is more difficult for men.
I consider this a social crisis of our times. Loneliness is endemic to our society, and not just for men. Children are victims of isolated family structures and cyber-bullying. Women are more naturally communicative than men yet also suffer from social-media isolation and damaging media images which focus on youth and skinniness.
It’s rather easy to go through an entire day without speaking to anyone. We have so many choices: what to watch, what to read, where to shop online. Many people have remarked that living in Mexico, in a sense, is like living back in the 1950s. I know what they mean. Walking around the village, doing our shopping, meeting friends for lunch at an outside restaurant, simply living at Lakeside is more engaging, less isolating, than living alone in a house or apartment in a city somewhere in the US or Canada. Yet, we can all do more to reach out to those who may feel isolated, even in Ajijic. Even living in paradise, someone can be digitally connected but very lonely at the same time. It’s good to remember that.