Loneliness is a growing problem in modern societies. Political polarization is also a noteworthy trend. Could the two phenomena be linked? Could loneliness, in fact, cause political polarization?
According to numerous sources, loneliness is a serious health problem – not just mental health but physical health as well. Several recent studies have documented the physical effects:
Additionally, the problem of loneliness is growing. The Harvard Business Review reports that, “Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.” The BBC reports that half of adults in England experience loneliness. And it’s not just old people. Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s study suggests, “ the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, then again in the oldest old.”
Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, describes loneliness as an “epidemic”. The United Kingdom has now appointed a minister for loneliness. And Natalie Proulx asks in the New York Times, “Does Every Country Need A Loneliness Minister?”
Shifts in demographics and joining behavior have contributed to loneliness. People today are less likely to belong to church or fraternal organizations. Enrollment in trade unions has declined sharply. Men’s clubs have all but disappeared. Long-term employment with a single company has also declined. The gig economy is perhaps the ultimate expression of the atomized workplace.
If we can no longer find a sense of identity and belonging in traditional identity organizations, where do we turn to alleviate loneliness? Two trends suggest that we may have already moved in loneliness-alleviating directions.
The first trend is that we have sorted ourselves into what might be called “identity neighborhoods.” (Neal Stephenson, in his novel Snow Crash, calls them “burbclaves”). As Bill Bishop pointed out in his 2008 book, The Big Sort, we now segregate ourselves by political identity as much as by class or ethnic identity. Liberals live here; conservatives live there. Our neighborhood can give us a sense of identity and belonging. It also insulates us from opinions that differ from our own. Bishop points out that, “The clustering of like-minded Americans is tearing us apart.” Bill Clinton adds, “Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks.”
The second trend is the rise of identity politics. We’ve moved away from broad-based political parties and towards “…political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”
Is identity politics driven by loneliness? Simon Kuper thinks so. Writing in the Financial Times, Kuper notes that people are increasingly joining political parties to signal, “…they belong to the same tribe …with a shared identity … and something to talk about. In other words they are doing something that is usually considered positive: they are forging a new kind of community.” If Kuper is right – and I’m inclined to think that he is – then loneliness is the root cause of identity politics.
Loneliness then is not simply an individual issue. It affects the way we organize ourselves in neighborhoods, communities, nations, and political parties. Many observers suggest that identity politics is bad for America – click here, here, and here for representative examples. If we want to stifle identity politics, we first need to work on the problem of loneliness. Perhaps we need a minister for loneliness, after all.
When I walk the dog in my neighborhood, I meet a lot of people. They don’t all look like me but — according to Bill Bishop in The Big Sort — they probably think like me. Bishop argues that we’ve sorted ourselves out less along ethnic lines and more along religious, political, and philosophical lines. We tend to live with and talk to people who agree with us. Bishop argues that’s bad for our country. It tends to exacerbate our differences. We think everybody thinks like us because we only speak to people who think like us. Anybody who doesn’t think like us must be a small group of weirdos who can safely be ignored.
Sorting ourselves out may also be bad for us as individuals. According to recent research, one of the best ways to keep the brain stimulated — and to avoid dementia — is to read or listen to contrary points of view. If we only listen to sources we agree with, we’re simply reinforcing existing pathways in the brain, not creating new ones. What does that have to do with the Internet? The Internet makes it much easier to find and consume only sources that we agree with. In the old days, we would read the family newspaper and be exposed to multiple points of view on the editorial page. With the Internet, it’s much easier to isolate ourselves in an echo chamber.
So, will the Internet cause dementia? It may already have. Watch the video.