I’ve changed my mind. Loneliness isn’t so much an epidemic as an anti-epidemic.
Just now, COVID-19, a regular coronavirus, is spreading like a regular epidemic. So far only tens of thousands are affected, not tens of millions, but already public health is a top priority. Stopping viral spread trumps profit, property, even personal autonomy. If quarantine is necessary, so be it.
Chronic loneliness already affects hundreds of millions of unhappy, unhealthy people. Two years ago, former US chief medical official, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, declared loneliness to be an “epidemic.” Insofar as the word epidemic means “accelerating health threat,” yes, there absolutely is an epidemic of loneliness. A quarter of Britons don’t have a best friend.
And not only does loneliness make one unhappy — it damages one’s health. Loneliness makes people sicker and promotes chronic inflammation, which in turn promotes other illnesses like cancer and heart disease, and makes them too listless to seek out company, making loneliness feed on itself.
It’s not just loneliness. Accelerating year on year, people all over the world are also becoming more depressed, anxious, fearful, hateful and so on. The common thread is physical and emotional separation from other people. Isolation, alienation and anti-sociability are spreading worldwide, fast.
A month ago, I described a major cause for this runaway dynamic: remote communications like broadcast and wireless — technically, disconnection — transmit fear and anxiety far better than affection and support. The gist: any kind of sudden alert, like a gazelle’s white tail flashing alert of a predator, transmits one-way fear, driving creatures apart.
So the more people consume remote input, the lonelier they are, period. The threat accelerates because isolated, anxious people consume relatively more remote communications and become yet lonelier as a result, and so the vicious circle continues. That exponential spread makes it an “epidemic.”
But loneliness is unlike any epidemic anyone has seen before. That is because loneliness is a metaphorical epidemic, not a literal one. Literal epidemics involve physical contagions spread by physical contact: germs, viruses, parasites, misfolded proteins (mad cow disease) or tumor cells (Tasmanian Devil facial cancer). Because humans are a social species, and social contact spreads disease, the go-to cure for stopping epidemic spread has been social isolation — quarantine. You catch the disease from other people. You stop the spread by isolating them.
This is not the way to stop the so-called loneliness epidemic. We’ve reached the limits of the epidemic metaphor, which communicates only the urgency but gives the wrong antidote. We need an accurate, actionable metaphor.
Meanwhile, let’s call the exponential spread of loneliness an “anti-epidemic.” Loneliness is a psychological state, not a physical contagion. Among humans, feelings like sadness and joy tend to spread when we’re nearby, not alone. So the “epidemic” spread of loneliness isn’t like catching a physical disease from other people, but precisely the opposite. You become lonely because you aren’t around other people. And if you’re lonely — or alienated, anxious, angry or fearful — you tend to disengage from other people too, which makes everyone, you and them too, yet lonelier. (Snubbing really hurts.)
The core cause of these anti-social feelings is anti-social behavior, which both results from and causes more anti-social behavior. To bring it home: We stop loneliness by bringing us together, as much and as close as possible.
By almost any quantitative measure I can think of — year-on-year growth, number of people affected, economic consequences, net human misery — this anti-epidemic of anti-social behavior beats global warming and COVID-19 tenfold. That makes it worthy of resources at every possible scale, from the minuscule to the grand, from “Should I smile at people?” and “Should I give my employees more time to socialize?” to “Should I spread fear?” and “Should I start a war?”
So no matter who you are, no matter what your power, if you can understand how the anti-epidemic of self-isolation spreads, you know how to help. Connect people. Pull machines out of human interaction and reduce the interruptions they impose. Be sympathetic to people whose only desperate social interaction is talking to a checkout clerk. One can’t climb out of loneliness by oneself, and willpower doesn’t help.
Again: We stop loneliness by bringing us together, as much and as close as possible. Anti-quarantine.
This article was originally published in Fair Observer
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