As the rates of depression and anxiety appear to be rising around the world, attention is starting to focus more on the mismatch between modern society and our basic human needs. An example is the recently released book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari (2018). One of the causes identified by Hari is disconnection from other people, resulting in feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness is a subjective unpleasant feeling arising from a discrepancy between people’s desired and actual levels of meaningful social relationships. It is important to emphasise that it is meaningful social relationships that makes the difference, that is you need to feel that you are sharing something with the other person that is meaningful to both of you. A Lifeline survey found for example that 60% of Australians feel lonely, despite many of them living with a partner or family member. Prolonged loneliness has been demonstrated to predict a range of poor health outcomes, including increased stress, shorter life expectancy and the onset of anxiety and depression.
To understand why loneliness has such a significant impact on our health, we need to consider our evolutionary history. Human beings first lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes. They survived in their harsh environment by working together. Being separated from the group put these humans in great danger, from predators, lack of shelter etc. So, even today, when we are disconnected from others, the unpleasantness we feel represents an urgent signal from your brain to motivate you to reconnect to the group. Our brain treats disconnection as a threat to survival. However, when reconnection is not easy or not possible, people can remain in this uncomfortable loneliness and develop suspicion of social contact, becoming afraid of what they actually need the most.
There are many aspects of the modern world that have resulted in increased loneliness and a sense of reduced community. Geographical distance between people and families has increased as they travel for a job opportunity or opt for accommodation they can afford, with more people living alone and working longer hours. Social institutions such as clubs, workplaces or the church have become a less common aspect of people’s lives. While social media can lead to some increase in social contact, it does not replace the benefits of face-to-face contact. As such, it is argued by researchers such as Hari that the world we now live in does not take into account our most basic human needs for connection and belonging.
It is important for us all to consider ways we can build community in our modern world. We can have regular family meals where technology is switched off. We can come together to do something as a group, such as joining a sports team, choir, volunteer or language group, or just meeting regularly for coffee. We can check out Meetup.com to find people with common interests. When we are feeling low, we can try do something for someone else. And if you find that anxiety and depression is getting in the way of you reaching out to connect, you can seek help from a mental health practitioner.
Dr Thea Longman
DClinPsych/MSc, BPsych (Hons)
Registered Clinical Psychologist