The problem of loneliness

Here’s a grim report from The Washington Post website to start the new year: “According to the health-insurance company Cigna, loneliness and social isolation are rampant in the United States today.

“About half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone, Cigna found in a 2018 study of more than 20,000 U.S. adults. Barely more than half say they have meaningful daily in-person social interactions. Studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and AARP have also reported widespread American loneliness.”

By any measurement, this should not be happening. It truly is easier than ever to contact other people today.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, loves to talk about his mission of connecting the world (as opposed to making gobs of money), but Post columnist Arthur C. Brooks writes that it’s clear social media and its smartphone offspring are great contributors to the problem.

Brooks contends that fewer conversations with strangers also are fueling this isolation: “Not so long ago, strangers talked to each other a great deal in public — in buses, at the airport, in line at the bank. Why? Because there was not much else to do.

“The emergence of smartphone technology, promising to connect the world and end social isolation, has achieved the opposite result.”

Brooks believes that people who are glued to their phones in public are trying to avoid intrusions. He says that stems from a mistaken belief that solitude is more pleasant than talking to a stranger, but cited research that says the opposite is more often true.

Another factor in reduced contact, he wrote, is the country’s political polarization: “When we politically curate our networks and friendships, most of us have fewer opportunities for new social interactions. If I am unwilling to interact with people who hold ... the opposing viewpoint from mine, I have cut way back on the number of people with whom I might make a meaningful human connection.”

To put it another way, a lot of people don’t want to hear opinions that are different from their own. If that is true, this problem has been brewing for a lot longer than smartphones have been around. It’s all but certain, for example, that every person reading this has used their TV remote to change the channel from a political program he or she dislikes.

Brooks said he’s doing two things to reverse this trend. He going to try to talk to a stranger every day. He hopes this will show him a number of interesting things “in the real world, not the digitized one.”

Also, he won’t let politics keep him from talking to others, reasoning that, “There is a person under that MAGA hat (or in that Bernie T-shirt) who might be interesting to get to know.”

The bottom line in the battle against loneliness comes down to something our parents suggested: Just get out once in a while. Or, to use 2020 terminology, put down your smartphone.

Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal