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  • Márcia Fervienza

The Epidemic of Loneliness: How Our High-Achieving Society is Making Us Sick

Sad business man

A recent survey conducted by health insurer Cigna unveiled alarming findings of loneliness in America. The insurer used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-item questionnaire developed to assess subjective feelings of loneliness and social isolation, to survey more than 20,000 US adults ages 18 and older.

According to the evaluation, 1 in 4 Americans rarely or never feel understood. Additionally, 1 in 5 people said that they rarely or never feel close to someone, 2 in 5 feel that they are isolated from others, and only about half of Americans report having any meaningful in-person interaction. Adults ages 18-22 (the Generation Z) are the loneliest generation, according to the findings. In general, the results show that there is an epidemic of loneliness in America.

Reading this information in numbers can feel too removed, which is why I will try to bring it down to concrete scenarios that are easier for us to picture. What does all of that mean in practical terms?

All of us have problems from time to time. Our realities may differ, but as humans, problems will always find us. Sometimes we can (and prefer to) handle them on our own. Other times, we need to reach out to someone. Do you have someone you could call to talk about it? If you do, you are lucky, because 4 out of 5 Americans don’t feel they do.

So, as lucky as you are, you call and share your problems with your person. If you feel understood, it is like a weight has been lifted from your heart, even if only temporarily, right? Well, 3 out of 4 Americans has no idea how that feels like because when they share, they don’t feel understood.

How about having someone to share a couple of hours, like a coffee, drinks or meal? That feels so good! But, unfortunately, only half of Americans feel that they have any meaningful in-person interaction with people.

And, to top it all off, no, it is not our eldest who feels lonelier. It is our young adults. That is appalling!

The next logical question would be: how did we get to this? Well, it starts in childhood. Our children and teens are feeling lonely as well.

According to the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 2017 (released every other year to thousands of teens in public and private high schools across the country), roughly one-third of the teens surveyed reported a persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness. Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth & Families program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, says that "It's shocking and alarming and tells us that things are terribly wrong." I am glad she noticed. But where are we failing?

Looking back

Nothing defines Americans more than autonomy and independence – and they are proud to be represented by that. Who wouldn't be? But in the last few decades, they have increased their focus on building careers and economic independence. They want to become successful, and there is nothing wrong with that. But maybe our current definition of success is too narrow.

We define success as being able to provide for ourselves and our family, preferably leaving our mark in the world. We want to make a significant discovery, create something innovative, build a legacy that will outlive us. Because this is the country where everyone (theoretically) has the chance to make a difference, no one wants to miss out on that. We then pursue it. At all costs.

We make sure also to start developing that mindset in our children from an early age. We focus on raising them to be highly functioning adults since they are really young, regardless of their emotional and psychological readiness or maturation. Sometimes, nature needs a push, we think, and we have to provide that push as parents. Thus, we focus on getting them involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible. We also assign them chores at home; we train them to be able to soothe themselves to sleep, we encourage them to get dressed and to feed themselves on their own, all from as early as they can manage a few coordinated moves.

We then teach them that they must focus on making the most of their education so that they can find a good job where they can get proper compensation and build a promising career. Only once they are financially independent, we say, they should think about forming a family and having children, who will be able to continue whatever we have started. We build our lives around our plans for retirement, vacations, college for the children, mortgage, etc., and we teach our children to do the same.

But how about relationships? We believe that the primary skills we need to teach our children are the ones that will ensure that they are successful in the world, but once they are done building a comfortable life, what will they be left with? What about connections and friendships?

Resilience, empathy and emotional regulation

There is a lot of talking these days about our children not being able to tolerate frustration, not knowing how to manage their feelings, and not having empathy for others. And, to correct that, schools want to focus on behavioral training and lectures. But managing feelings, tolerating frustration and having compassion are soft skills. How do you teach that putting kids together in a classroom and talking about it?

You don’t!

These are skills you learn at home with your parents, through modeling, and that will enable you to go out there better equipped to learn the other skills that will make you successful in your career.

Teaching these skills requires looking, touching, being vulnerable and being close to your child. Listening to them, watching them, learning their behavior and the meaning of their stares. In other words, it requires having a relationship with them. And by feeding them on a schedule, taking them to classes and extracurricular activities and making sure they get good grades at school, you are not doing that.

We are failing at teaching our children to build relationships because - guess what! - we don’t develop emotional connections with them. Why? Because we believe that is given: we are family, parents and children, so the emotional connection is already there. It is transmitted through blood and DNA. We don’t think we need to learn anything about how to relate with others. We assume it just happens. As such, we focus on passing along the things that won’t just happen, like how to be a leader, how to be productive, how to set goals, etc.

But relationships don’t just happen. And we are a community of people who feel lonely, who doesn’t know how to reach out because we’ve never even learned that those things – interpersonal connection – were necessary.

Fear of interdependency

Interpersonal connection and relationships require interdependency, and I think few things can scare more Americans than this. We are huge defenders of personal independence, autonomy, freedom, personal space. What I hear the most from millennials is “you do you.” Like, what you do with your life is none of my business.

In theory, that is an interesting approach: it ensures your freedom to be whomever you feel like and do whatever you want. But, deep down, this sentence also communicates indifference.

“You do you” means I don’t have an opinion on what you do because I am busy with my own life. As such, if what you do causes you pain or happiness, hey, not my problem! You handle it. This self-centered approach certainly ensures a competitive culture, which can be valuable as well. But it leaves us lonely.

We tread this thing called life in the process of constant learning. When young adults tell each other “you do you” they are not choosing to be each other’s partners in this learning experience. They’re not having each other’s back. Therefore, how to share fears, mistakes, and regrets? “You do you” don’t encourage sharing, and it assumes that we are all mature enough to deal with our demons on our own.

But are we?

I wasn’t at age 20, and many times I still feel I am not now, at 41.

So, why are we just leaving each other stranded? We can come together for mutual support in situations of extreme need (such as in natural disasters). Why can’t we recognize that, as humans, we are social beings always in need of interaction – a look, a word, a text, a call? Not acknowledging it makes us feel like we are aliens, or that there is something wrong with us when we feel lonely. And we feel demotivated to reach out for help.

Can we please normalize our need for interpersonal connection?

We can’t do this alone, and suicide rates are a proof of this. Why do we insist on it? Why do we leave each other orphans most of the time?

Maybe it is because our parents, with our best interest at heart, didn’t know any better. They had no idea that they had to teach us the importance of building bonds and relying on each other, because they grew up having that, with parents and extended family close to them. So, maybe, they just assumed we would know about it when we were on our own, and that the other skills had to be taught to equip us to the corporate world better. Maybe.

But whatever they did is not working, and we must start asking why. We can’t continue to replicate an unsuccessful behavior forever. We have never been as successful – and as lonely, sad, anxious and depressed – as now. Our children and teens are not faring well either – the rate of mental illness among children and teens has seen a massive increase in the past few years. If we are this successful and this unhappy, we are missing something.

Making room for feelings

We have to remove our eyes from the outside world and take some time for some introspection. When was the last time that you sat with your feelings, as hard as they could be, and just gave them room to be? When was the last time that you delved into your worst emotional pain and allowed yourself to cry like a baby? Doing so is healthy. That won’t help us pay our bills, but what is the point of having all bills paid and no one to share the food on the table?

What about our children? What have we taught them so far about feelings, love, introspection, and empathy? No, they won’t learn that relationships matter and that we are interdependent social beings by what we tell them, they will learn by how they see us treating them and others in our lives. For them, it is not about what we say, but what we do. That is where they get the bulk of their learning from.

We need to stop for a minute to catch our breath. Less focus on developing hard skills and more emphasis on connection and relationships. Artificial intelligence can learn all the hard skills we are so intent in teaching our children in a heartbeat – what they can’t recreate yet is our humanity. How are we doing on that front?

We need to reassess how we are doing things. Our children are screaming for help. We are crying for help. But we all seem deaf to it.

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