Emotional Health

Only Connect: The High Cost of Isolation

It is well known that people who have strong social ties have many advantages. Research studies in sociology, psychology, and medicine indicate that they are happier, more productive, and even live longer. In today’s world, it is not as easy as it once was, though, to maintain ties to others. Being connected to people was something that was almost unavoidable in the past. To survive, families usually stayed together and worked toward a common goal. Communities, too, would last only if their members depended on one another and looked after one another. Religion was a guiding social force that provided many of the opportunities for social interaction.

Even families that did not suffer the close quarters of the striving classes were brimming with life because they had servants. It was not uncommon even for middle-class households to have one or more people for household help. The history of cookbooks reflects this: most of them prior to 1950 assumed that a cook, not a harried housewife, was following the directions in the recipes. Julia Child’s classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, offered recipes to “servantless cooks”— some women began taking over the work in their own kitchens, though many still kept a maid.

Even “Downton Abbey” types were never alone despite their vast mansions. The help provide what family members could not in terms emotional sustenance. One of the appeals of this popular PBS Masterpiece Drama was the portrait it gave of two parallel families, upstairs and downstairs, living under the same roof. No one was lonely in that house.

When Freud first started seeing women patients who presented symptoms of “hysteria” at the turn of the 20th century, he deemed these neuroses to be the result of “over-stimulation.” Heated sexual conflicts and Oedipal difficulties were caused by the juxtaposition of Victorian mores and the crowded households everyone lived in.

But social patterns changed and families began to break up, move away from one another, and become more independent. As the 20th century progressed, patients who consulted therapists trained in Freud’s methods had more diffuse difficulties: depression, identity issues, eating disorders and addictions—symptoms of what psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, a late 20th-century innovator, called the “under-stimulated self.” These issues, he said, are the product of isolated, lonely, and empty childhood experiences.

More and more people have problems that result from the isolation of life today.  Nearly twice as many people (40 percent) say they are lonely than in 1980. At least a third of Americans over 65 now live alone, and the number of people who do has risen from 9 percent in 1920 to 28 percent today. In cities, like New York and Washington, the number is closer to 40 percent. Author Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, who wrote Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Going Alone, calls this the biggest social change of the past 50 years.

But Klineberg’s positive view is in the minority. The New York Times reports that in addition to feeling lonely, people who are isolated are vulnerable in many ways:

“A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormonesOne recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.”

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