: views from the Hill

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Social isolation a significant health issue

So I open my Chron yesterday to find this article: Social isolation a significant health issue by Katherine Seligman.

I promised yesterday to blog about why the article's focus annoyed me so much.

They could have more friends than ever online but, on average, Americans have fewer intimates to confide in than they did a decade ago, according to one study. Another found that 20 percent of all individuals are, at any given time, unhappy because of social isolation, according to University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo. And, frankly, they'd rather not talk about it.

i.e. "friends online" aren't considered fodder for intimate confidences.

The article also points out that 80% of people are not feeling socially isolated, but that doesn't sell books. (I doubt their 20% figure anyway.)

The article goes on to quote Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and co-authored "The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century." "People are so embarrassed about being lonely that no one admits it. Loneliness is stigmatized, even though everyone feels it at one time or another."

Olds wrote the book with her husband, Dr. Richard Schwartz, because, she said, she wanted to bring loneliness "out of the closet." The two were struck by findings from the General Social Survey (conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago), showing that people reported having fewer intimate friends in 2004 than they had in 1985. When asked how many people they could confide in, the average number declined over that same time period from three to two.

Why would three be better than two?

In 2004, almost a quarter of those surveyed said they had no one to discuss important matters with in the past six months; in 1985, only 7 percent were devoid of close confidantes.

Two separate issues [1) no one to disuss important matters with in the past six months, 2) devoid of close confidantes for a year]

I'd be interested re 1) in what the question text was. Was it, "Did you discuss important matters with a close personal friend in the past six months?" If so, what if there were no "important matters" to discuss with anyone? Does a "No" answer mean that you're lonely?

Those who know me can see where I'm going here.

#1 The authors writing these books are obviously more comfortable with people around to talk things over with.

#2 The authors writing these books obviously don't think that people can "talk things over" with online buddies. It's F2F or on the phone or nothing at all, according to them.

So I read on

But humans are not wired to live alone, researchers say. The impulse for social connection - though it is stronger in some people than others - is rooted in the basic urge to survive. The need is so great, says Cacioppo, [John Cacioppo, whose research was mentioned at the beginning of the article and who has also! written a book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection] that it is reflected in our neural wiring. Most neuroscientists agree, he said, that it was the need to process social cues that led to the expansion of the cortical mantle of the brain.

In "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection," which he co-authored last year, he wrote, "In other words, it was the need to deal with other people that, in large part, made us who and what we are today."

Loneliness, Cacioppo explained in an interview, has more in common with hunger, thirst and pain than it does with mental illness. It signals that something is wrong and needs to be corrected.

and at about this point I twigged that Olds and Seligman and others who worry so much about loneliness and being alone are probably extroverts, eh?

See the Atlantic article Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch, to see what I mean. (DT recently reposted a link on his Facebook page, just in time for me to get my every-couple-years re-read of a great article.)

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