A Is the increase in loneliness these days connected to the fact that we used to live in tribes but we now live much more independently? War journalist Sebastian Junger and writer Johann Hari believe that it’s at least part of the story.
B Sebastian Junger spent a year with a group of US soldiers in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan during the war. In a 2014 TED talk he describes how these soldiers were stationed in a place without internet, TV, girls, running water or cooked food, a place where the fighting was intense and people got shot. Yet, after returning home, when one of the soldiers was asked if he missed anything about the war, he answered, “I miss almost all of it”. Junger says that the soldier clearly didn’t miss killing people or seeing his friends being killed, so what did he miss?
C Junger believes that one of the things that the soldier missed was brotherhood, the connection and belonging that he felt as part of the group of soldiers. He explains that in combat the soldiers were almost never alone: they worked, lived and slept in a small and very close group, and in this group they cared for and constantly looked out for each other. However, back in modern American society, the soldier had no idea who he could count on or who loved him. Junger argues that, in some ways, war would be easier than the alienation the soldier felt after coming home to America.
D Although criticised by some for his glorification of war, Junger’s idea about the human need to belong is an important one. In his book Tribe he expands on this, arguing that one of the things we need to be content in our lives is to feel connected to other people. That need for connection is an evolved one, coming from our past when we lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes and depended on each other for survival. However, that connection has decreased in modern society as we have gained more financial independence and don’t need to rely on other people as much, and this lack of belonging can lead to isolation and an increased risk of depression for anyone, not just returning soldiers.
E Writer Johann Hari also believes that we haven’t evolved for life alone the way many of us live it now. He explains that in our tribes we shared food and worked together to survive. We felt secure in these groups, and if we became separated for a long period of time, we would feel a sense of dread and alertness – a signal to get back to the group. Hari adds that in recent years we have left our tribes and lost many of our connections, and we have begun to think that doing things alone is natural, but the loneliness we feel these days comes from the previously evolved signal to get back to our groups.
F Hari’s book about depression, Lost Connections, looks at the disconnection that we experience in modern life and the effect it has on us. In it he interviewed John Cacioppo, an expert on loneliness who explained that when people are lonely for extended periods of time, they become hyper-vigilant and afraid of social contact, avoiding the thing that they need the most. And over time loneliness leads to increased stress and even depression. Similar to the soldier’s experience of returning home from war, lonely people, disconnected from their tribes, struggle because they feel that no one is looking out for them.
G Loneliness isn’t the same as being alone, according to Cacioppo, and it’s not always reduced by more social contact – in his research he found that some of the loneliest people interacted with a lot of people on a daily basis. He concluded that you do need other people in your life, but just being around others is not enough. You also need people who are looking out for you and who you look out for in turn, and you need be sharing something that you feel is meaningful with other people – to be ‘in it together’ in some way; it’s when we aren’t sharing anything that is important to us that we feel most lonely, he says.
H It’s very unlikely that we will go back to tribal living, and, like most people, I wouldn’t want to give up my independence. I like spending time by myself, and I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a group trapped by social norms and dealing with difficult personalities. I’ve been in groups like that before. But I’ve also been in groups working towards challenging and meaningful goals, and in these situations there were less interpersonal problems, people seemed more genuine, and the sense of connection was quite powerful. Perhaps the level of challenge and meaningfulness leads people to connect in a deeper, more genuine way.
I Although the increase in loneliness in modern society is probably more complicated than simply the effects of moving away from our tribes, it does seem that Junger and Hari have hit on important ideas about how we might increase that sense of belonging that we need: being ‘in it together’ with a group working towards meaningful goals, and having people in your life that you can count on and with whom you can communicate what you feel is important.