“Loneliness is about the scariest thing out there.” ― Joss Whedon
A colleague recently sent me an article about cities of the future and how human loneliness is now a serious design factor. Jessica Brown, the author, reminds us that;
- humans are social animals
- the current loneliness epidemic is now being called a public health crisis
Her first point is a little more complicated than first glance. Humans must have other humans in order to physically survive. You can’t leave a baby in the woods and hope he will just turn out okay. Sorry Tarzan. Parents and family are essential for human survival.
But it’s even more important than that. Not only are we dependent upon others to help us survive, during infancy and childhood, we need adults to teach us how to survive. Imagine all of the skills that you were taught in order to head off to first grade:
- Asking for help
- Going to the bathroom on your own
- Obeying authority figures
- Finding your way home
- Making new friends (and enemies)
Have you read the recent research about children, social skills and time in front of a screen? Children and teenagers are spending so much time on their electronic devices – they are missing out on critical time with real people, learning real social skills, developing real relationships that could prepare them for adulthood. Instead, it seems that more and more young adults are not prepared for casual and even more developed relationships that protect them from loneliness.
Being on your phone busy with work, surfing through posts online, watching the latest media doesn’t replace social contact with real people. As children are learning to make their way in the world, they need to practice social skills like understanding non-verbal communication and environmental cues. These are difficult to attain when a majority of time is spent online.
When I walk into college classrooms these days they are filled with students and silent. There is rarely any talking, sharing or laughing. Everyone is sitting alone, attention locked on their cell phones. The zombie apocalypse has arrived.
Jessica Brown’s article reminds us that it’s often easier for us to rebuild the world we live in than take deep and difficult looks at our own selves and the ways we are raising the next generation.
“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.” – Charlotte Bronte
I was at the grocery store again and I couldn’t help but notice more family experiences that just made me keep thinking about it all.
- There was that 6 year old standing by the butter yelling at the top of all of our lungs that he had “found it!” He made sure that everyone knew this three or four times. I watched as the woman who looked like she needed three naps pushed her cart toward his excited dance. I thought to myself, I hope the day never comes when they stop speaking to each other.
- Then there’s the dad who has responsibility for his three little tiny girls walking around his ankles like kittens. He is focused on his mission, eyes searching, while they are running around and darting in front of everyone else – causing near misses and collisions right and left. He remains oblivious. His wife has obviously given just one simple directive, “don’t leave anyone behind when you come home.”
- Watching the young (and older) couples filling their baskets together is always fun. Sometimes she is having to give a lot of directions and he is just there to do the pushing and pulling. Other couples look like they are on an adventure, planning a meal or getting their week organized. Every now and then there’s an older couple, one of them is confined to an electric cart and his/her partner is moving up and down the aisle finding the right item. They work as team to manage their life together.
I’m usually at the store by myself. It’s therapeutic. People say they see me there but I never notice, walking by, talking to myself, in my own world, watching the world around me.
The grocery store is a great place to see the American family in action. As I’m watching these people together doing the mundane tasks associated with life I think about where our society is heading. We are trending toward more fragmented families and choosing to live alone.
According to numbers from the most recent National Survey of Family Growth, more men (66%) than women (49%) agreed that it was better to get married than to go through life remaining single. Are men more frightened of loneliness? Are women less willing to settle for second or third best these days? This doesn’t mean that people are less willing to have children. The stigma of single-parenthood has dramatically declined.
This also means that half of women are willing to remain single. It’s become a more normal option to them – at least on a survey question.
The trend for many is away from marriage as a key component of the American Dream. It promises a high level of individual autonomy and control of one’s lifestyle. But there is a cost to both the individual and to our society.
I suspect that as the days go by I might see more lonely shoppers at the store and far less interaction to watch.
You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
– Paul McCartney