Solving for Loneliness

There is such strong evidence in the scientific literature of the fundamental need for good relationships in a “happy” life. But apart from this benefit, it is also so clear to me that as our environment grows more hostile, we are going to lose our capacity to be self-reliant. It’s easy to live alone when the water comes through the tap in your bathroom and the lights work – but when public utilities stop working, the community has to step in, or people die.  And yet, despite the need for good relationships to both survive and thrive, the pandemic of loneliness is real. The UK even has a dedicated government Minister of Loneliness, Baronness Barran. 

So how do we even start to bridge this gap? I think we can start with trying to understand why we’re at this point of deep disconnection, given our world of hyper-connectedness. And we need to do better than “because of social media” or “because people have lost God”. I find those kinds of answers to be a bit circular: essentially saying that “we’re lonely because we’re lonely”. 

So this article is about how I experience loneliness, and the particular mind trap that causes it in me.

Good Relationships are the secret to a Good Life

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is well known in wellness circles. It began as two separate studies in the early 1940s, both intending to track the lives of the study participants all the way through: monitoring their health, experiences, stories and development. The goal was to figure out what would best predict healthy ageing. The study is now in its second generation, tracking the children and grandchildren of those first participants. The main conclusion (according to George Valliant, one of the principal investigators) is that good relationships have the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction. Or “Happiness is love. Full stop.” 

Other longitudinal studies have replicated this result. The Scientific community is, at least convinced.

What struck me, reading about this study, and listening to interviews with some of the folks involved in this project, is just how surprised they were by our reaction to the findings. You see, We the People have reacted with surprise and excitement at this conclusion. The authors thought that they were stating the obvious and so they never expected the TEDtalks to go viral. 

But they did.

Why are we so surprised?

My position (which I’m going to explain): our surprise is linked to how we conceive of ourselves.

In the West, Capitalism and Democracy are the key ideological building blocks for how we conceptualize ourselves. Religion indeed once played a significant role in this perception, but that is fading. 

It’s important to acknowledge that Capitalism and Democracy are not community-oriented ideologies. They focus primarily on the individual as the base unit of society (rather than the family, or the village, or the nation). I’m not saying that this is evil or wrong– but there are downsides to this kind of thinking, and we need to role play them in context, because they are deeply influential. 

So let’s start with a baseline for how we see ourselves in this context, and then extrapolate it from there.

The modern sensibility is to think of ourselves as conscious beings, with wants, needs and certain inalienable rights, all created equal, with as much chance as anyone of making a success of it. We generally believe that we should be free to live our own lives as we see fit, and we can and should exercise our political voice to articulate for those freedoms. We can debate those freedoms because we know that we are all fundamentally good people, who work hard, and abide by and within a just legal framework. We hope to be rewarded for our hard work with meaningful well-paid jobs, supportive friends, a happy home and a family holiday once in a while. Anyone who is not fundamentally good is a threat to the freedom that we value, and we protect ourselves with a fair and just judicial system, a strong and respectable military, and reasonable immigration laws. 

This is, essentially, the “American dream”, and our culture is saturated with it. It’s in the TV shows and movies that we watch, it’s in the books we read and it’s in the music that we listen to. Our education systems are generally designed to be a preparation ground for that future. This core myth about humanity is romanticized to a large degree, and I have no problem with that – human beings create culture around themselves, and I’m very glad to be living in this particular cultural reality.

Nevertheless, any ideology has shortcomings that are not always so obvious at the start. As a particular ideology becomes endemic, these shortcomings tend to compound, and if the consequences are serious enough, they will drive the next wave of cultural change. 

For me, an obvious example today is the quagmire of identity politics. It strikes me that “identity politics” is a logical outcome of what happens when your cultural ideology is so deeply oriented toward the individual and individual rights. At some point, you have to reckon with the politics of how individuals interact with each other directly. We may have accelerated toward this point with vehicles like Social Media, but we’ve been headed toward this point from the start.

And from where I sit, one of the more subtle outcomes of our ideological viewpoint is, indeed, the general epidemic of loneliness.

And I say that because loneliness is a deeply rooted sense of un-belonging, rather than a state of solitude. It happens within connection, not outside of it, which is what makes it so dangerous.

So let’s take a step back and consider how the American Dream plays out in relationships, and influences the quality of our connections. We know that Good Relationships are the key ingredient in a Good Life – so surely, the American Dream supports them?

Well yes – but there is a mental cul de sac to deal with. It goes like this:

  • I am an individual with needswants and rights
  • Anyone that I relate with is an individual with needswants and rights.
  • It is obvious that there will be moments of conflict – where, for example, meeting my need means infringing on your rights. 
  • So how do we negotiate the conflicts? Does one of us have to concede a right or a need?

And in those conflicts, you get two main outcomes:

  • Someone sacrifices their particular need/want/right to keep the peace, and adds it to the running tally of how many times they’ve done it; until, at some point,
  • The relationship breaks down.

This is a very utilitarian approach to relationships. We accept that we’ll incur some costs (or sacrifices) as long as the benefits that we receive back outweigh them. This is profoundly democratic and even meritocratic. Relationships that give good returns are “good” and “healthy”, and those that don’t are “bad” or even “abusive”.

We have to take this a step further, and make sure that we underline the role that time plays in this way of thinking. If we don’t account for time, utilitarianism dissolves into disconnection almost immediately. That is: if you only ask yourself “Am I getting more than I’ve giving from this person right now, in this moment?” then one of the parties will walk away right then and there.

So myopic utilitarianism is impractical. Rather, we assess over time whether the ebb and flow of the giving and receiving is fairly distributed. We are also forecasting into the future, assessing whether our expectation of balanced costs and benefits are likely. 

In the most perfect version of a utilitarian relationship, you find a balance where the benefit derived by one party is relatively costless to the other. So, for example, John is rich but wants fame, while James is famous but can’t afford his lifestyle. John and James become friends, because John gets to share some of James’ spotlight, and he also has no problem with picking up James’ tab.

It’s probably clear already where this can play out very badly.

Firstly, the science also says that we are terrible forecasters. So as a rule, if we are trying to assess relationships on the basis of whether the benefits and costs will balance out, we’re almost always going to predict that wrong. We’re also going to get the definition of “benefit” wrong. And the definition of “cost”. 

And secondly, there is the whole moral mess of utilitarianism and how it objectifies people. I’ll side-step that for the time being, and circle back to it.

Why forecasting is such a problem for relationships

Let’s go back to our two friends, James and John. And we’ll add in a third person to the mix: John’s childhood friend, Mark, who is also wealthy and has no desire to be in the spotlight. I’m just going to keep the scenario this basic because I want to illustrate the forecasting problem.

Here’s a reminder of who we’re dealing with:

  • John is rich, but wants fame.
  • James is famous, but can’t afford his lifestyle.
  • Mark is rich, but does not want fame.

John’s utilitarian assessment is that Mark, while an old friend, does not want the same things as him, and has very little to offer in helping him achieve the fame that he is searching for.

John therefore actively chooses to spend all his time with James, who is only hanging around for the free ride.

John has made two crucial forecasts here: that fame will make him happy and that a friendship where his value is defined by his financial status can be a “good” relationship.

And even if I’m a terrible forecaster, I still maintain it’s pretty clear that John is heading down the path to loneliness with his choice.

So that’s the first problem: utilitarianism might work if you are able to correctly predict the future; but because we can’t, we’re much more likely to invest in relationships that disappoint us.

Circling back to the personal injury of utilitarianism

The much larger problem with utilitarian thinking is that it is deeply damaging to the way that we see ourselves. If you see other people in terms of their relative usefulness to you, then you will see yourself in terms of your own relative usefulness to them.

This is not avoidable. It’s like Newtonian physics. It’s why the history of the ages speaks with a collective voice when it says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is not a moral preaching so much as it is a universal caution, much like “Don’t stick your hand in the fire unless you plan on getting burnt”.

The issue is that utilitarianism means assessing your own value extrinsically. And we’re back to that fundamental problem of humans being terrible forecasters, even when it comes to assessing our own value.

Predicting who we would most benefit from and how much we will matter to them leads to an awful dilemma:

  • We want to have relationships with people who we forecast are better than us; but
  • We are never sure that we’re worthy of them.

“Unworthiness” is the bedrock of loneliness, because even when you are in relationships, you feel like an imposter.

And the trouble is that utilitarianism is the spot where human connection and that sense of unbelonging coincide. You are never sure that you really belong, because you know that the other person (or group) may at any time decide that you’re not worth it. You can only contribute, or be at risk of not contributing enough, or feel entitled to a greater contribution from those whom you feel aren’t quite worthy of the effort that you’re putting in. 

In this way, you can essentially experience every scenario of relationship as trauma. And that’s a function of our thinking, not the people that we’re connected to.

Acknowledging that “all relationships [are/can be] traumatic” brings me back to that question of why we found that study so surprising.

Why are we so surprised by the finding that “relationships” are the key to a Good Life?

Given that last section, you might think that we should have been surprised in an outraged sort of way. 

But I suspect that talking about relationships being good for us in general, rather than considering every relationship individually, might have allowed for a slight, but ever so important, paradigm shift.

Because in all the problematic concepts I was just talking about – the mind-traps that individualism and utilitarianism can create – I was confined to talking about specific relationships. Under this paradigm, every relationship is subject to its own specific cost-benefit analysis.

But you can certainly mitigate the utilitarian dilemma if you can also overlay your thinking with a higher-level principle that says “Relationships in general are important to a good life.”

Because this does two things:

  1. It cures the harshness of the forecasting, by factoring in a universal benefit (“All relationships have inherent value as being part of making my life good, and this one is part of that.”)
  2. It allows you to have intrinsic value in your own self-assessment (“I can offer to be in ‘relationship’ with someone else, which will have inherent value for them as being part of making their life good.”)

Intrinsic value is the basis of belonging. It says “I’m your friend no matter what” – which sounds absurd to me, but is clearly what should be the case.

It is also the fundamental building block of community. Community doesn’t happen for individual benefit – it emerges out of proximity, where folks are welcome because they are simply welcome and not because of what they may contribute. Contribution may affect your standing in your community, but it does not determine membership.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Community-oriented ideology doesn’t have downsides, like herd mentality and ingrained prejudice. But it’s important to take the good where you can find it – and if we do have a deep human need for belonging, then we need to figure out solutions for “good” Community as well.

But my point is, intrinsic value may seem like a utopian idea, but it is fundamental, and it is already part of our Democratic ideology. After all, we believe human rights and dignity are universal. But because everyone has those rights and dignities, we assume that they’re “already given” rather than “constantly being given”. That’s probably the real flaw in our thinking, because without a “live” inherent value sense, we break ourselves by extrapolating utilitarianism into the only functional value system for human connection.

It’s why I’ve placed this article into the “Surviving an Extreme Future” category.

Human history is one long testament to the fact that civilizations grow out moments of crisis, even if they flower in periods of moderation. In my working life, I’ve been caught up in cyclones and coups and economic crises almost constantly. The delineation between success and failure in the chaos was the communal network. It wasn’t my CV. That’s not humble deference – it’s just an honest assessment of what made the difference.

And on the plus side, we’d maybe feel less lonely.

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