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America the Lonely: social isolation, public health, and right-wing populism

Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.

– John O’Donohue, Irish poet

When the 2016 presidential election ended in one of the biggest upsets in modern political history, pundits and talking heads scrambled to diagnose the shocking outcome. They blamed economic anxiety, xenophobia, a desire for an anti-establishment candidate. For the long list of factors that gave us a Trump presidency, I propose an addendum: loneliness.

In 1674, English naturalist John Ray placed “loneliness” in a list of infrequently used words, and defined it as a term for people and places “far from neighbors”. Smash cut to 2018, when the United Kingdom created a government office for the “Minister of Loneliness” after the country’s rate of chronic loneliness reached 45 percent among adults, recognizing it as a public health risk.

America, the U.K.’s estranged adult child, is doing less and faring worse. As of 2019, 61 percent of adult Americans identified as lonely––up 7 percent from 2018. The numbers are worse for millennials and Gen Z: the same study finds that 71 and 79 percent, respectively, report feeling lonely in life. And that was before a global pandemic upended lives and pushed people farther apart. In the last 50 years, the share of U.S. adults living alone has nearly doubled, an effect that has been observed across the industrialized world. The 25 percent of adults who live alone in the U.S. represent the highest rate ever recorded. In 2020, 17% percent of Americans reported having no one they were close with, up nine percentage points from 2013. This rise in social isolation coincides with record levels of mental illness, declining rates of volunteerism and religious affiliation (both community-centric activities) and fewer close friends than decades past. 

For significant segments of our population, chronic loneliness and the quality of life reductions it brings are serious issues.

What is loneliness, and why is it getting worse?

Loneliness as a public health issue refers to long term feelings of disconnection from society and other people. Famed political theorist and UC Berkeley professor Hannah Arendt once described loneliness as “a kind of wilderness where a person feels deserted by all worldliness and human companionship, even when surrounded by others.” This encapsulates the essence of loneliness: while physical distance from other people can certainly make it more likely, it is at its core an internal, subjective feeling that arises from a lack of true bonds.

Pinpointing a precise cause for this rise in loneliness is impossible because our society is complex and dynamic. Competing theories blame capitalism, individualism, industrialization, urbanization, the internet, other technological advancement, or some combination of factors. It seems likely, however, that it is a product of general societal progression. 

As our manufactured world continues to develop, human interaction becomes less of an imperative for survival. And in a world where work is the priority, loneliness happens by accident. People grow up, focus on their careers, and slowly drift away from close connections. Our country also has an ever increasing proportion of elderly Americans whose friends and family start to pass away and leave them increasingly isolated. At the same time, community activities have been declining and the internet has stepped in as a source of quasi-interaction. Young people are operating in a world with increasing emphasis on the internet as a source of entertainment and more options for solo entertainment. But virtual interactions are no substitute for the reciprocal bonds that humans crave and need. Rural Americans, an oft overlooked group, suffer from even worse acute loneliness. The physical distance between residences can lead to even more complete social isolation, with not so much as a glimpse of other human beings for extended periods of time.

A silent killer from our evolutionary past.

Humans are social beings. Our minds and bodies do not react well to chronic feelings of social isolation. A 2015 study found that a lack of social connections is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, concluding that it is a serious risk factor for premature death. The CDC also recognizes the connection between loneliness and increased rates of dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, and anxiety. And this suffering also has a dollar cost. A 2017 study published by the AARP Public Policy Institute showed social isolation and its negative health implications cost Medicare roughly $6.7 billion annually.

Why does it affect us so drastically? The answer is rooted in our evolutionary past. Humans evolved in close-knit social groups where group belonging was imperative to survival. Successful social groups are predicated on trust and familiarity; evolution favors forming strong bonds in species that are social because they are more likely to survive. In the hundreds of thousands of years humans spent as tribal hunter-gatherers, separation from the group meant certain death. Loneliness likely evolved as an aversive state, like hunger or pain, that disincentivized being alone because it was dangerous. Individuals who felt lonely would stay connected, thus improving their chances of survival. This is also why we are especially sensitive to rejection; being rejected from a social group was a matter of life or death 50,000 years ago. In modern humans, losing your group triggers a fight-or-flight response because of the danger it presented to our ancestors—your body interprets it as an emergency

Over time the symptoms of not having a group to connect with cause psychological unease, leading to anxiety, fearful behavior, defensiveness, and self-involvement. In a tragic negative feedback loop, the behaviors brought about by the anxiety of being socially isolated make connection less likely. The fear and nervousness of not having a “tribe” make people harder to engage with and less likely to reach out to others. Loneliness has been empirically linked to selfish behavior as a means of self preservation. Without social bonds, there is no positive reinforcement of the caring and generous behavior that makes for good relationships. Chronic loneliness, it would seem, leads to subtle feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, which in turn cause people to act more selfishly as a defense mechanism.

Research has also shown that lonely individuals suffer from a minor but cruel distortion of reality. They are simultaneously hyper-aware of social queues and more likely to misinterpret those queues negatively. To start, neuroscientists link loneliness to living in a state of hypervigilance in daily life, passed down from our ancestors who were in grave mortal danger if they found themselves alone long-term. Compounding this is the tendency of lonely people to interpret ambiguous social queues negatively and to react with a self-preservation mindset. This makes it even harder for lonely individuals to reach out, and may drive them away from situations they misinterpret as hostile.

How does loneliness bleed into politics?

The tortured psyche of America is often reflected in the cracked mirror of politics. To some degree, the surge in virulent right-wing populism is a reflection of the growing social isolation in the country. This is not to say it is the sole or primary reason our politics are becoming more hostile, but to discount it as a factor would be ignorant. There are numerous peer-reviewed studies linking increased anxiety and fear to right-wing politics in general. Right-wing voters tend to resist change and have a stronger physiological response to threats; a University College of London study found a correlation between larger amygdalas (the region of the brain that processes fear) and conservative self-identification in young adults.

Of course, these are oversimplified generalizations, but they hint at real psychological trends that influence political attitudes. The important takeaway: chronic loneliness causes heightened anxiety, fear, and hypervigilance, which can make people more receptive to far-right ideology that relies on fear of the “other,” fear of radical social change, and promises security.

English economist Noreena Hertz interviewed right-wing voters in England, France, and the United States. “What I kept coming across,” she said in an interview, “time and time again, was how lonely they felt.” A study from the University of Arizona, Tucson goes so far as to directly link social isolation with heightened extreme conservatism—finding a positive correlation between loneliness and xenophobia, right-wing authoritarianism, and less tolerance for distress. It follows that loneliness is a common theme on right-wing message boards. Conspiracy theories and online communities offering a sense of belonging have always drawn social outcasts, and nothing gives a sense of community and protection like a cult leader to rally behind. 

Enter Donald Trump.

The blend of American conservatism and right-wing populism espoused by the ousted president is especially appealing to socially isolated voters. They are primed for his “beware the other” messaging and general fear mongering that targets the vulnerability they feel due to their lack of social connections. 

Trump also brings his cult of personality to the table. He speaks in a language that lonely people are receptive to, playing the role of a strong leader who will protect you from the world that is out to get you. Strongmen appeal to people who feel vulnerable by offering protection and strength; a powerful new group to join. Arendt, our political theorist from earlier, wrote in 1951: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness… has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”

And while Trump’s motives are driven by a narcissistic desire for self aggrandizement, his ability to tap into socially isolated conservatives is very real. With Trump at the lead, legions of socially isolated voters found solace in a president who, they felt, truly saw them.

It showed in the numbers. Polling site FiveThirtyEight summarizes:

Biden was heavily favored by registered voters with larger social networks (53 percent to 37 percent), but it was Trump who had the edge among voters without any close social contacts (45 percent to 39 percent).

And this was especially true among white voters even after accounting for differences in income, education level, and racial attitudes. Sixty percent of white voters without anyone in their immediate social network favored Trump, compared to less than half (46 percent) of white voters with more robust social ties”

So loneliness appears to be a boon for right-wing populists. It’s not the biggest reason for Trump’s meteoric rise, just one with marginal effects. But elections are won and lost on the margins. The point is, loneliness makes people hurt. Right now, people all across America are hurting, and it manifests itself in a variety of harmful ways: increased anxiety, higher mortality, and political polarization ranking chief among them.

Conclusions and Solutions

Why establish a connection between loneliness, health issues, and Trumpism? It is a reminder that no matter how disconnected someone’s beliefs may seem, we are all humans motivated by the same basic desires, and prey to the same physiological defects. For a lot of America, a lack of social connection is a serious health issue. Addressing it can help reduce harms to mental and physical health, curb premature deaths, and make people feel less vulnerable and anxious. In turn, they will be less likely to rally around toxic online communities and the politics of fear and xenophobia.

To be crystal clear, the biggest problem is the link between loneliness and negative health ramifications that necessitates a recognition of loneliness as a public health issue on par with obesity and smoking.

It’s tough to tackle a problem driven by the march of progress. At the government level, there are some basic steps that can and should be taken. Spreading awareness through public information campaigns is a key first step that can bring the issue to the forefront of the public consciousness. There is much to educate the public on. Not just the dangers of loneliness, but also the need to stay in touch with elders and family members, the need to balance work and life so that time is allocated towards maintaining social connections, and the importance of building community. Funding community initiatives like parks, gardens, libraries, and festivities is something that local governments can do, if they properly recognize the dangers of chronic loneliness. 

Individually, we can all choose to reach out to our friends and family. Keeping up with friends in our own age group ensures that we do not accidentally find ourselves isolated later, and keeping up with our elders will help them feel connected to a world that seems to be moving on without them. Use technology not as a substitute for human interaction, but a tool for bridging the distance between you and your people. And finally, get out of your comfort zone! Meet new people, check up on your neighbors, build on shared interests to find community. Healthy social interactions keep our mental health, physical health, and democracy running smoothly. If you are feeling especially isolated, remember that while it might seem overwhelming to talk to people, no one is out to get you. Oftentimes opening up is actually the best way to find people who will value your company.

Featured Image Source: Mario Zucca for the Boston Globe

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