The Privacy Paradox

It's all too easy to lock the door and bask in the privacy our ancestors could only dream of, says Nando Pelusi, Ph.D. But our search for solitude can subvert an even stronger need—to connect with others.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on November 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"I'm unhappy, but not exactly."

"I feel disconnected from my life, like I'm just watching it go by."

"I don't enjoy myself the way I used to."

"Little things really get to me."

Clients often enter my office in hopes of understanding a confusing phenomenon. They've got some big decisions to make about the future, they're harboring resentment, and they're worried about their kids. But that's not what brings them to my door. A far more intangible concern is gnawing at them. They're low on energy, listless, unable to concentrate on daily tasks, and generally not relishing their own existence.

They're physically healthy but emotionally fragile and easily dejected. They may not be clinically depressed, but they suffer from what psychologists call dysthymia, a mild, low-level, pervasive depression that saps life of its beauty, even as one continues to fully function.

The problem may lie in frayed connections to friends, relatives, coworkers, and especially the tens or hundreds of strangers we pass every day. Punishing schedules and myriad affiliations provide ties that are all too illusory. People experience profound dissonance because they are in the company of others but not truly connected to them.

In contrast, most of our ancestors probably sat and talked and worked in close proximity to family and friends (out of necessity, but still!). Can you imagine hugging your coworkers several times a day or seeing the same dozen people from sunrise to sunset? Because our ancestors lived in such close contact with one another, protecting one's individuality and privacy likely became paramount. The paradox is that in a world teeming with anonymous faces, the privacy we crave is in easy supply. And when we obtain it, we're at risk of slipping into detachment, isolation, and anxiety.

You may not be physically alone throughout the day, but you're probably not interacting in a meaningful way with the people around you. Even the people we see regularly often remain strangers, and the bigger the city, the more likely you are not to know the woman who delivers your mail or the man at the counter of your local coffee shop. We pass our days in the company of existential strangers. The net effect is one of malaise—dysthymia—because we are toiling, eating, and sleeping amid people who remain distant and aloof.

As evolutionary psychologists point out, humans developed in tight tribes. People were aloof only when they were actively rejecting one another. Hence the ping of irritation or concern we feel when an e-mail goes unanswered, a phone call ignored. Hence, too, the oppressive feeling we can get from being constantly surrounded by strangers—even if we can't articulate the source of our discomfort.

We evolved to fear strangers but also, perhaps, to crave (brief) periods of separation from others. As a species, we trekked out of Africa among small, ever-splintering clans of 30 to 150 people.

Our ancestors were surrounded by kith and kin—imagine a multigenerational family reunion every day of your life. Just as fats and sugars were once a rare luxury and are now in oversupply, for most of human history solitude occurred only in small doses; wander off on the savannah and you'd be dead. Today, all you have to do is lock the door and turn off your phone.

We arrive at the 21st century as profoundly social beings who risk severing their own lifeline. With the exception of parent-child and romantic relations, we no longer hug, kiss, and hold each other for warmth, protection, and reassurance. Our interactions have become vastly more sanitized. No one's complaining about central heating, but our spectrum of communication is severely restricted. Today it's inappropriate to brush up against someone you like or even to look them in the eye too bracingly.

Technology often encourages us to further segregate ourselves. We excel at creating isolation in social settings; we spend our time at the health club, say, coddled in a private cocoon of sound. Technology even tricks us into thinking we're more connected than we are; we believe we "know" people on TV and radio and view them as friends, argues the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa.

Throughout our history, when we roamed too far from the tribe or found ourselves among strangers, our dysthymia might have served as a warning to hightail it back to the group. After all, being alone meant increasing odds of death. Loners didn't just fail to reproduce, they failed to survive.

Yet our ancestors likely continued to crave privacy because isolation can also serve a real purpose: reflection. Moping and withdrawing may have been our only opportunity for insight in the ancestral cave. But modern life allows us to become too self-absorbed, immersed in hurt, self-protection, and sadness.

Introverts may experience the pull of privacy especially acutely. If you are a highly sensitive person, you may be more perceptive about social cues, such as others' feelings, language, and tone of voice. The endless nuanced emotional information can be overwhelming, urging you to withdraw. So you may have to push yourself all the harder to be around others. The more you do it, however, the easier socializing gets, and the more you reap the benefits of social interaction.

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that dysthymia and even depression serve a purpose: to socially galvanize us, forcing us to retrench, rethink, and learn from our errors. If you're not invited back to a party, you begin to wonder what's wrong with you. That hurt may push you to look within and figure out a better way to connect. If you find yourself losing a series of potential mates or friends, for example, a period of withdrawal and rumination could force you to examine whether your habits are turning other people off. Of course, excessive rumination can easily become unproductive.

What to do? Nurture your connections with people you like and people who may require your help. You can be selective, but one thing that we know about combating dysthymia is that when you treat others kindly and fairly, refuse to nurture a grudge, and throw yourself into creative endeavors, your mood lifts. Only by doing that which sometimes feels unnatural—being open to new people— will we override our impulse to withdraw.

Come Out of Your Cave, Man

How to maintain balance against the pull of privacy.

  • Accept the limits of indirect communication like e-mail, texting, and even phones, which are inherently vague and distal. Refuse to take it personally when problems arise in long-distance relating.
  • Break out of your isolation by taking a social risk, meeting new people, going to new events, studying a new art form.
  • Explore your talents by sharing them with others. Sing a song or tell jokes in public. Risk exposing your true feelings, your humor, your more radical ideas.
  • Help others. Cultivate your kindness, generosity, and love for people you care about, and even those who act selfishly. You're doing them, and yourself, a favor.
  • Talk to one new person per day—it could be anyone, about anything—and discover what happens.