The Cost of Loneliness
Administrators of one of the largest hospitals in America cite loneliness as a major reason for overcrowded emergency rooms. Parkland Hospital of Dallas, Texas, made this startling discovery as they were looking for ways to unclog the system. They analyzed data and compiled a list of high utilizers.
They identified eighty patients who went to four emergency rooms 5,139 times in a twelve-month period, costing the system more than $14 million. Once they identified the names of these repeat visitors, they commissioned teams to meet with them and determine the reason. Their conclusion? Loneliness. Poverty and food shortage were contributing factors, but the number one determinant was a sense of isolation. The ER provided attention, kindness, and care. Hence, the multiple return visits. They wanted to know that someone cares.
The Guise of Connection
As the speed and choices of the digital age send us hurling toward impatience and shallowness, they culminate in its most damaging consequence: isolation. Social media in particular lures us in under the guise of connection, but beneath this mask is the reality that social media, and digital spaces as a whole, are for the most part lonely places.
This is because social media is fueled by voyeurism—that broken inclination within each of us to peek behind the curtain of other people’s lives. Rather than connecting us, the voyeuristic nature of social media actually detaches and distances us from one another, as we find ourselves running aimlessly on the treadmill of comparison and contempt.
We feel like we can see one another’s lives, but none of us ever feel truly seen. Digital connections often act as poor disguises for our real-life isolation. Sherry Turkle says it this way: “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone.”
Isolation in Japan
Researchers have found that more than half a million people in Japan stay at home for at least six months at a time without having any contact with the outside world.
More Isolated than Ever
Whether young or old, Americans are feeling more isolated. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, about half of Americans have weekly interactions with their neighbors, which means half of us don’t. A survey by AARP found about one-third of respondents over the age of forty-five are lonely. And according to the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation have similar effects on health as obesity and can lead to premature death.
No surprise, social media doesn’t help the feelings of isolation. We can have serious fear of missing out (FOMO) when it seems we aren’t invited to the places everyone else is (or even have the same number of likes or comments as someone else). The opposite is also true. When we replace a virtual meet-up with a real one, we can decrease our actual isolation.
The Results of Solitary Confinement
Researchers have found that when prisoners are placed in solitary confinement with little human contact and minimal sensory stimulation, severe psychological and physical issues often ensue: depression, anxiety, hallucinations, impaired brain functioning, paranoia, psychosis, uncontrollable rage, weight loss, hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, self-harm, and/or suicide.
As some leading psychologists explain, “Solitary confinement is not a natural state for us as social creatures who require human contact and human touch to maintain our very sense of ‘self.’” Solitary confinement “destroys people as human beings.” The consequences are so devastating and irreversible that solitary confinement is considered by many experts to be a form of torture that violates international human rights law.