Loneliness is inevitable; it is crafted out of the modern world and thus is inseparable from it. It is so pervasive that “to be human is to be lonely” (as cited in Rokach, 2004). Humankind is “continually struggling to escape the solipsistic prison of … painful alienation, … the agonizing pain of loneliness, and its gnawing, saddening, and terrifying effects” (as cited in Rokach). This everlasting battle drives people’s lives – the fear “motivates people to attend to and connect with others but … in a self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating fashion” (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2006).
Social isolation is a more tangible seclusion as opposed to the subjective experience of feeling lonely – which is the longing to fit in and the resultant experience when one cannot. However, both experiences are particularly prevalent in North American culture. Individuals of the contemporary Western society are subject to comparatively high levels of loneliness and social isolation – a result of increasing reliance on technology, selfish ideals, and the pressure culture places to develop relationships. This culminates in poor psychological health and quality of life, creating a cycle of further alienation.
Western culture is to blame for the increasing levels of social isolation among the population. North Americans have significantly higher levels of loneliness compared to other cultures (Rokach & Neto, 2005). Though humans inherently desire closeness, it is the ‘mechanized’ society to which they belong that is forcing them apart by way of “more leisure, either through affluence or unemployment, [living] longer, [increasing] our interaction with computerized equipment, and [continuing] to respond to various financial and corporate demands by frequent mobility” (Rokach).
It is the lifestyle of the modern world rather than a single source that sustains loneliness: “normality … is associated with such conditions as spiritual and emotional emptiness, Type A personality, and workaholism” (as cited in Rokach & Neto). Society is structured in such a way so that to eliminate loneliness is to eliminate all that Western culture thrives and is supported on. Without society as a supplement, people cannot survive either; and so, they are caught in the painful experience of loneliness.
As Western society becomes more technologically advanced, social isolation is magnified proportionally. Increased reliance technology and the Internet has “negative effects on psychological well-being, such as depression and loneliness” (Junghyun, LaRose & Wei, 2009). High school students with “greater hours of engagement on the Internet have higher loneliness levels than the average users” (Deniz, 2010). Increased internet usage is both the cause and effect of loneliness; the lonely turn to the virtual world for a sense of connection they cannot achieve in the ‘real world’.
However, electronic connections cannot take the place of real relationships – “increased Internet use can increase social isolation as well as depression when it replaces more tangible forms of human contact. ” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008, p. 260). As well, North American culture promotes traits such as individualistic success and competitiveness – “every man for himself”. These values are the model for ‘success’ and are only more pronounced in the modern era; thus, relationships on the whole have become superficial and exist primarily by necessity. Loneliness is a defining factor in the technologically-advanced and selfish Western world.
Loneliness is a predominantly Western phenomenon – yet the very same society illogically emphasizes the necessity of social connection. Not only does the modern age provide an environment where loneliness and social isolation thrives, it also heightens awareness of such conditions. Social connection involves feeling part of society and not alienated. Society itself encourages connectedness and meaningful relationships – an ideal that the population shares. An “overwhelming majority [of people rated] love, intimacy, and social affiliation above wealth or fame, even above physical health” (Cacioppo & Patrick, p.
5) when asked what gave them most happiness. However, loneliness is so prevalent that it is very difficult to attain these goals. As such, when harsh expectations are not met, the feeling of isolation is intensified. Loneliness in itself already causes suffering, but not meeting social requirements unduly worsens the experience. “The individual greatly relies on the community for support, a sense of belonging, reciprocal sharing with others and one’s sense of identity” (Seepersad, Mi-Kyung & Nana, 2008) – thus, the perceived failure to society greatly weakens self-worth.
The inherent need for closeness, amplified by “the social expectation of having a romantic partner” (Seepersad, Mi-Kyung & Nana), prompts people to enter relationships simply to eliminate feelings of social inadequacy and emptiness. In Western countries, “individuals view romantic relationships as possibly the most important and central source of love and intimacy (and thus as very needed and desired)” (Seepersad, Mi-Kyung & Nana). As a result, “it appears, for instance, that a good number of marriages start as a panacea to loneliness” (Rokach).
However, expectations to have suffering eliminated by these artificial relationships are often not met – hence the high divorce rate. These unfulfilled expectations resulting in a lack of real, meaningful relationships constitutes an inability to connect with others. This notion in turn is “consistently associated with issues of self-esteem [and] perceptions of social competence. ” (Hall-Lande, Eisenberg, Christenson & Neumark-Sztainer, 2007). Western culture’s paradoxical expectations of close relationships in a lonely world only causes more suffering and further loneliness.