As our world progresses, it can be easy to celebrate the positive social growth we achieve. Every year we spread more love and acceptance of minorities, better opportunities for people from all genders, races and backgrounds. We are slowly cutting through old stereotypes and stigmas, especially in the mental health sector. However, there are still many issues we face that are not often in the spotlight. In our modern world, there is a unique set of challenged we face that can take a toll on our minds and our health. Today, I want to talk about something we don’t usually discuss. There is a phenomenon occurring that is affecting one of our core needs as people. How we interact with others. People today are more connected than ever, yet there is a profound loneliness sweeping though us. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be an attack on technology or social media. This is rather an exploration on how we can be surrounded by people, yet be left lonely and unfulfilled by our empty interactions.
I would like to preface this by saying that the data on this subject is limited at best, and misleading at worst. Professionals have reached no consensus on the state of loneliness in our modern world, and I believe this is because it is an exceedingly difficult thing to measure. Loneliness can be a result of mental issues, or a side effect of other, more tangible life experiences. Moving to a new city or a break with a partner can leave a person feeling alone in the world. But what happens when we are surrounded by people, yet still feel a profound lack of real connection? There is a phenomenon we experience that I like to call ‘empty interaction’. We talk, but we get no sense of fulfillment. It feels like we are stuck with these surface level conversations, in an endless loop of discussing current events and commenting on the temperature. We talk without saying anything, and shun those who talk freely. You know who I mean, it’s that person at the bus stop who’s a little too open about their recent divorce. That distant relative at the family reunion who tells everyone about their anxiety, or the friend who talks too freely about their depression. These people are seen as too ‘out-there’, too eccentric. They make us uncomfortable. When I find myself in these situations, I can’t shake the feeling that this person must be feeling a great loneliness. Is there a part in all of us that wishes to lay out our worries at the feet of others? Is there a human need to share our greatest pains, and if so, are our empty interactions with the world instilling us with the terrible notion that we are alone?
For the longest time people have played with the idea of being ‘alone in a crowd’. You can find these sentiments in music, writing, all forms of emotional expression. Loneliness becomes almost more intense, the less ‘alone’ you are. Where does this come from? How can we feel so incredibly isolated when we see and communicate with people all day? I believe that the monotony of small talk and politeness, while it does not fulfill our need for connection and understanding, still acts as social interaction. Every individual has a certain amount of social time that they enjoy, a sort of ‘social meter’. As we go about our day, this meter goes down, but our emotional need for a space to be vulnerable and intimate with others is not met. If you, like me, are a self-proclaimed introvert, you can more than understand this concept. We have a limited amount of energy which we can spend on communication and during this time we hope to experience the comforts that companionship can bring. We want to feel understood and cared for, and if needed, we want to feel heard and listened to. In an ideal world, there would be an equal exchange of vulnerability and intimacy between people, and we would go to our beds at night with our emotional needs met. But what happens when there is no exchange of anything meaningful or emotionally useful? What happens when the only interactions we have are shallow, surface level conversations that sap our social energy and leave us drained, empty, and unfulfilled? Lonely in a crowd is a disorienting feeling that has become the experience of many. We all have a human desire to connect with and explore the deepest parts of our life experiences, but a terrible fear of how others see us.
This phenomenon has been around for a while, but I believe it has become more prevalent in recent years. Loneliness has been felt by people for as long as history can remember. As intensely social creatures, we are lost when we feel isolated. The strength of community and ‘togetherness’ changes through different cultures, but is always desired. In today’s modern world, we are more connected than ever, but loneliness is a rising concern. During the time of writing this there are situations in the world which are exacerbating all mental issues. The pandemic, and its lock downs have given rise to mental health issues all over the world. People are scared, bored, and lonely. However, on a bigger scale, I think the modern world itself is a breeding ground for loneliness. The expectation to showcase your life online is very prevalent, especially for our youth. We show off the best parts of ourselves, putting up smiling pictures that say ‘Life is great and I am happy’. As more and more of our social life moves online, so does the monotony of empty interaction. Even with the low-consequence feel of texting and messaging, we are still stuck in the dance of ‘I’m good, how are you?’, when maybe we aren’t good. The online world has eccentrics as well. There will always be the people who use platforms as a way to be open about every dark thought they have, and freely post their worry and pain for all to see. Just like in real life, this is often shunned and mocked. Again, I can’t help but feel a great loneliness from these people, and think that maybe they have simply given up on wearing the mask. Ultimately, the modern world has given us more ways than ever before to connect and socialize with the people around us, yet maybe we still lack the willingness and the acceptance to get past the small talk.
So how do we get past the small talk? A young girl called Kalina Silverman gave an amazing Ted Talk, called ‘How to skip the Small Talk and Connect with Anyone’, that I think about a lot and will link down below. She talks about feeling lost and alone during her first year of college, and not realizing that others felt this way until a few years later during a conversation with a friend. She laments that all conversations would be better if only people could be open about the big questions in their lives. She goes on to film a video, asking strangers questions like ‘What do you want to do before you die’, and ‘If you were to die tomorrow, what would you do today’? Watching people think inwardly and have a chance to express the things that mean the most to them is unbelievably heart-warming, and I think its important. Sharing the deepest parts of your being with another person, even a stranger, not only gives you a chance to peak out from behind your daily mask, but it gives the listener a window into the psyche of another person. The amazing therapy of these interactions is so important to us as people, and I believe it is the heart of what builds us into compassionate and emotionally intelligent adults. ‘Skipping the Small Talk’ as Kalina says, is not easy or an everyday occurrence. However if we are always on the lookout for opportunities to make real, genuine connections with people and their lives, I believe that we can combat our own loneliness as well as theirs.
All in all, I don’t want to leave you with the bleak outlook that the lives we lead are lonely and without connection, because I don’t believe that is true. I believe the world we live in asks us to wear a happy face even when we are in pain, and has trained us to be uncomfortable when people don’t. Yet as people, we have the amazing gift of compassion, and the want to lift each other up, and I hope that as mental illness becomes more accepted and visible, we have the strength to support each other. If you have people around you who love and support you, cherish them. Don’t be afraid to open up about the difficult things you are experiencing, and fight against the pressure to say ‘everything is good’. If someone dumps all of their worries at your feet, rather than first thinking ‘why me’, ask yourself why they are feeling this need. Its easier said than done to simply stop having these empty interactions, but the journey towards real connection starts with you. Every person has a need to be heard. It is our job to listen, and hope that the support finds its way back to us.
Kalina Silverman’s Ted talk, Definitely worth a watch.