Stay physically apart; communicate electronically whenever possible; avoid contact. As precautions, they sound extreme—but societally, we were already trending in that direction.
Ninety-five percent of shoppers want to be left alone in stores, notes an HRC Retail Advisory, and eighty-five percent would rather check prices at a scanner than ask a human being. We like to pump our own gas (God, how I miss the hypnotic indulgence of watching somebody else glide a squeegee across my windshield) and bank online and order from Amazon; we even order sofas and mattresses without a test recline. Journalists do more reporting by email than in person. Many of our interactions with friends take place online. New projects aim to develop empathy via virtual reality simulations of other people’s experience.
The result? By the time we began self-quarantining, loneliness itself had reached epidemic proportions. One in five U.S. citizens report feeling lonely or socially isolated “always or often,” and forty-five percent of seniors feel lonely. More than twenty-five percent of the population lives alone, and we move more often than we used to, and nobody hangs out on their front porch. Extended families are scattered across the country. More than half of U.S. adults are unmarried, and Lord knows how many marriages feel even lonelier than being single. People bowl alone these days; they do not join clubs, volunteer, or attend religious services as readily. “Our culture is changing in ways that invite us—in fact, almost require us—to be more lonely and disenfranchised,” says Steve Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
We used to be such an extroverted country! We still congregate (when viruses allow) and we still go out a lot. (If you want to prove just how important that social dimension is, put people in lockdown and check back.) But we do not sing from our balconies. Our connections are more often digital than physical, and our relationships skim the busy surface of our lives. For the first few wrongheaded seconds, a phone call from an old friend feels like an intrusion, a time suck.
This swath of loneliness can make it even harder to talk across differences; to feel part of the nation; to look out for each other. It also decimates our immune system. Working with a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, Cole found different gene expressions in people who felt alone: “Whole sectors of genes were different, many of which played roles in the immune system’s inflammatory response. The lonely Chicagoans’ immune systems were driving inflammation as though fighting an infection, and the genes that would have calmed that inflammation were underactive.”
Loneliness increases the risk for cancer, neurodegenerative disease, viral infections, and a host of other problems, not to mention depression. Social isolation lets our brains dull and drift, steals our sense of proportion, ratchets up our stress hormones. Lonely people age faster and die sooner. It is “the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there,” Cole has said. “Nothing can compete.”
Looking up his earlier work, I see research on closeted gay men with HIV, and how they died faster than those who were open about their sexuality. I flash back to a printing rep I knew when I was editing an alumni magazine: sweetest guy in the world. We bonded during 3 a.m. press checks, and when he learned I was moving to my first apartment, he volunteered his truck and spent hours hoisting my heavy boxes of books.
A few months later, he was abruptly gone. He had quit the printing company and moved out of town. I later learned that he died soon after. This was hard for me to wrap my head around; not only was AIDS still new and strange, but the last time I had seen him, his cheeks had been rosy, his energy high, his body strong. Brotherly in manner, he had never once alluded to being gay to me; in those days, the corridors were lined with closets. I felt as bereft as I would years later, when a friend killed himself; the loneliness of those deaths felt wrong, like something I should have known and softened.
It happens every day. The U.S. does not own this problem; as prime minister of the U.K., Theresa May created a cabinet position to tackle chronic loneliness. Western cultures do feel a little lonelier to me, though. Maybe it comes with individualism, or with the separateness our technology makes possible.
However self-reliant we become, there is no escaping the fact that we are social creatures. This is about more than the Enlightenment’s political contract; this is biology. And soul. And the very structure of our consciousness. Even recluses and introverts have a few threads connecting them to the social fabric. When we feel lonely too often, our white blood cells look the way they would if we were terrified.
This is an odd thing to realize right now, when we are trying so hard to avoid each other.