Loneliness: How Our Economy Disconnects Us From Each Other


Note: The following is an adapted transcript of a spontaneous talk.

It is often said that we are living in the most connected time in human history. That is because today we possess the advanced modern technology to instantly communicate with people from nearly every part of the world. At the same time, it could be argued that we are living in the most disconnected time in the history of humankind. That is because today there are more lonely people than ever before.

I was reading that in the US about half of the entire population feels lonely on a regular basis, and that most Americans report not having anyone to talk to and ask for help when they find themselves in times of personal crisis. And most countries are following the footsteps of the US: The rates of loneliness have been increasing worldwide.

So, why this epidemic of loneliness? Before I answer this question, I would like to briefly explain what loneliness is, because many people tend to confuse it for solitude or for spending time alone — and these are two very different things. Loneliness is the unpleasant feeling of being disconnected from the world, of being cut off from people, from community, from place, from nature. Being in solitude, however is not necessarily unpleasant. I, for example, love spending time on my own, nearly every day. Spending time alone also doesn’t mean that one feels disconnected from the world. One can be alone and still feel connected to other people and to nature.

Now, loneliness, makes people insecure, and insecurity causes a lot of stress. And, as you might know, stress is very detrimental to our health. Studies have shown that lonely people are much more likely to develop a wide array of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, obesity, respiratory conditions, depression and anxiety. Of course, it’s not only stress that causes those diseases, but stress is definitely a factor, perhaps the most important one. So, as you can understand, loneliness is a very important health issue.

Let us now return to our question: Why are so many of us feeling lonely? There are many reasons for that, but there are two reasons which are the most important ones, at least in this day and age that we’re living in.

The first one is the conversion of relationships into paid services and products. Today, we are living in a highly monetized world. Nearly every aspect of our lives has been monetized, including our relationships. A lot of things that people used to do for each other or with each other in the past, now they have to pay for. For example, when people were still embedded in their communities, when they used to know their neighbors very well, and trusted them, they would ask them for help whenever they needed it. So, let’s say a woman needed to fix something in her house, or to move a heavy object from one room of her house to another. She would most likely ask some neighbor to help her out, if she didn’t have anyone living in with her that could provide her with a helping hand. Nowadays, we would most likely pay a company to help us, especially those of us living in big cities where we don’t really know our neighbors, even those who live right next to our apartment.

Let me give you another example. In the past, people used to have fun mostly with their friends. They would come together often, and they would do things together. They would sing, they would dance, they would play games or sports. Or they would simply sit down together and have interesting conversations. Nowadays, many of us still spend time with friends and have fun with them. But not as much as compared to the past or to older generations. In fact, a lot of us spend pretty much all of our time on our own, in our homes, having fun away from other people, watching TV, surfing the Internet, listening to music or playing video games.

Now, because we don’t meet other people that often, because we don’t ask other people for help, because we don’t spend much time together doing creative things or having fun together, we don’t build bonds or ties with one another. In other words, we don’t build strong social connections and intimate relationships. And we kind of like this because we feel independent, we feel free. We think that we don’t depend on anyone else, and that as long as we have money, we can provide ourselves with everything that we need. Our happiness, we believe, does not depend on our relationships.

I find this belief to be an illusion, or maybe I should say, a delusion. In reality, we do depend on other people, just like we depend on the soil, the trees, the air and the sun. It’s just that those people we pay and depend on are just strangers to us. We don’t know their names, we don’t know where they are coming from, we don’t know their stories. But without them, we wouldn’t have most of those things that we need and want. And the security that we have is also kind of an illusion, because what would happen if we don’t have money? Then we would not be able to buy those things that we need. And nobody would really help us, because we don’t have good relationships with other people. You see, true security comes from relationship, from friendship, from community. Because even if we don’t have any money whatsoever, still, we know that we have friends to support us in times we need help the most.

The other reason I wanted to talk about which is causing so much loneliness in the world, is competition. We are living in a very, very competitive world. Employees compete with one another, companies compete with one another, nations compete with one another. Competition is nearly everywhere in our world, and we learn to be competitive from a very early age so that we can survive in it. When we were kids and were sent to school, for example, we learned to compete for grades. And later on, when we became adults and entered the marketplace, we started competing with other people in order to gain competitive advantage in our economy to make profit. Being conditioned by the social environment we live in, we see others as competitors who are out there to win over us. And we do the same to them.

Of course, in a world where we see others as our competitors, how can we open our hearts and let them come close to us? We can’t, because we are deeply afraid. We feel that if we do that, they might hurt us. So, what we do instead is build high, thick walls around our hearts to insulate ourselves from others, to protect ourselves from the world. Little do we know, however, that this is counterproductive. For, as we saw earlier, the more we isolate ourselves, the more insecure we tend to become.

If we want to minimize loneliness in our world, we need to realize that money is poisoning our relationships, and move as much as we can away from competition. To do that, we need to redesign our whole socio-economic system from its very foundations, so that instead of promoting competition, it promotes collaboration and sharing. In such a world, people will trust one another, and they will work together for the benefit of everyone. I know that this might be tremendously difficult to imagine, but I firmly believe that it is possible. In such a world, loneliness will be the exception, not the rule.

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