On a cold, moonless night, the co-owner of Macy’s department store and his wife were aboard the sinking Titanic. Mrs. Straus distributed blankets to the women and children in Life Boat No. 8. But when asked to enter the lifeboat herself, she refused to leave Mr. Straus’s side. “All these years we have traveled together, and shall we part now? No, our fate is one,” she explained. Two sailors tried to force her in, and she wrangled herself free, looking at her husband. “Where you go, I go,” she said. The couple was last seen arm in arm on the deck, the finale of their 40 years together.
Today, a different sentiment dominates. It’s closer to, “Where you go, I might consider visiting.” The individual comes first.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about why millennials are lonely. In short, it’s because loneliness is contagious (literally), and the internet exacerbates it. Our “infectious isolation,” I concluded, is mounting.
This is problematic for lots of reasons: In animals, social isolation shortens lifespan, promotes obesity and diabetes, hinders psychosexual development, and increases cortisol levels. In humans, social isolation has, according to Loneliness: Human Natureand the Need for Social Connection, “an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.” Socially isolated people are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease. They’re also more stressed, less creative, have lower self-esteem, and feel less in control of their lives than non-lonely people.
So how do we stop being lonely?
I think the answer starts with priorities. Social connection has become less important to us. One large cross-sectional study found that subjective loneliness actually declined slightly between 1978 and 2009 in adolescents, while objective social isolation increased. High school students in 2009, the study’s authors wrote, “reported fewer friends with whom to interact, but less desire for more friends.” Meanwhile, empathy decreased, and insecure attachments increased.