The Epidemic of Loneliness, in a Time of Unprecedented Connnectivity

Loneliness has both readily quantifiable factors and other factors which are not so readily quantifiable. It’s relatively easy to accurately quantify an individual’s “social network size,” but this is but one of several or many variables determining whether a person experiences loneliness, and to what degree.

A person can have a very high score number on a social network size measurement and still be quite lonely — because quantity of human connections is not the only relevant factor. Quality of human connections is probably even more important a factor.

If you have a bunch of “friends” you see regularly and half of them are also “friends” with one another, but all of them (this is hypothetical) rank low in listening skills, empathy, compassion, kindness, affection, warmth… odds are you’re lonely in a crowd.

It’s also worth noting that someone can have a high social network size number with true friends who are empathetic good listeners who are kind, warm and great at attunement (Attunement definition | Psychology Glossary |, but if they are not getting enough of the right kind of touch in their relationships they may still experience a good deal of loneliness. This is highly variable from one person to another, as our need for touch is quite variable.

It is even possible that all of the relational needs I’ve mentioned so far are optimal for a person while some other variable not yet on that list is inadequately met. Here is our (unranked) list so far:

  • social network size
  • quality of listening, empathy, attunement, etc.
  • touch (highly variable)

Let us suppose that a person has these three items deeply satisfied … but somehow lacks the ability to contribute meaningfully and satisfactorily to the community to which he or she belongs, resulting in a feeling that he/she is impotent in the face of social problems she recognizes. He/she will likely then experience some alienation. Her/his “belongingness needs” (Abraham Maslow) are satisfied in some areas but not in others. Let’s call this fourth factor “community belonging / participation”. Some folks may ‘score’ high levels of satisfaction in the first three items while scoring quite low on this fourth one, and be very lonely! And there may be other variables not yet added to this list — but it feels fairly comprehensive to me. … except for one more item which just popped into my mind: the more-than-human world (David Abram).

I think we are wrong to imagine that all loneliness can be ameliorated by more and better human relationships alone. We also have a profound human need for connections with what philosopher David Abram calls “the more than human world” — which is basically all of the remainder of the world, other than humans and their artifacts. To really get what he means, you may want to read one or more of his books, essays… or to listen to him speak in the videos available online. I don’t think there is a real short cut to knowing what he means by the “more than human world”. David Abram – Wikipedia

After publishing my response (which I’m editing now) it occurred to me I left a very important factor out. I want to call it “authenticity & vulnerability”. I will add it to the list below. To feel deeply connected with other humans we have to be willing to be seen and known in all of our figuratively naked ‘vulnerability,’ as was beautifully explained by Brene Brown here:

Here is my completed list so far. It feels adequate.:

  • social network size
  • quality of listening, empathy, attunement, etc.
  • authenticity & vulnerability
  • touch (highly variable)
  • community belonging / participation
  • more-than-human bond/s

I view loneliness as a sign of what we may call “relational inadequacy / insufficiency,” and as being in some respects similar to malnutrition, in that a person can eat lots of food and have a full belly every day but can lack some of the basic nutrients which a person needs to be healthy. A person can become very ill, and even die, of malnutrition while seeming to be eating sufficiently (as measured in a narrow quantitative way). And a person can be lonely if any of the items on the above list are inadequately attended to. And by “attended to,” I don’t mean to suggest that attending to these basic human needs is entirely incumbent upon each of us as individuals, alone. No! These needs are embedded in communities of various kinds and scales, and our communities, too, need to address them at the community scale. No individual can cure the epidemic of loneliness on his or her own. It takes a village, so to speak. It requires a community response.

If we understand our needs, and the needs of others, it makes it much easier for us to consciously attend to these needs in ourselves and in one another. And understanding these needs is an ongoing process, always!

Why do we have a loneliness epidemic? We have this epidemic because our culture/s and communities don’t adequately understand and address the full spectrum of our basic human needs for connection, belonging and empowerment. Only changing this fact will address this pervasive, now largely global problem.

Finally, because I think he does such an excellent job of discussing basic human needs, I offer this video of Francis Weller speaking on grief and other topic

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