Loneliness is an epidemic in the United States.
A recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that they are isolated from others (43%). One in five reports that they rarely or never feel like there are people they can talk to.
These statistics are alarming. Loneliness affects every aspect of human biology, including an increased risk of physical and mental health problems. In addition, loneliness is a major obstacle to experiencing happiness and well-being.
No amount of education, money, privilege, or success can safeguard you against disconnection and loneliness. In over 20 years of practicing psychotherapy and executive coaching, I’ve seen everyone from CEOs to artists, parents to high schoolers, all looking for the same thing—to feel connected to themselves and other people in a way that allows them to devote themselves to the things they really care about.
Social Media: Pseudo-Connections vs. Real Connections
The advent of social media promised new mechanisms to connect us with others. Today, almost 80% of Americans use social media; 69% of adults use Facebook. Yet all that “connecting” hasn’t reduced our feelings of disconnect and loneliness. Why?
For many, traditional social media—such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—may technically connect us to others, but frequently these are performative interactions rather than meaningful, human conversations: “I like your post” vs. “I understand something about you and want you to understand me, too.”
The effect of technology on our personal human connections is common parlance among psychotherapists. On the positive side, we observe how technology creates new opportunities to connect with others and can offer a bridge to those who struggle to make in-person contact. But the capacity for negative impact exists, too; social media can cause real pain and alienation when trolling, bullying, ghosting, popularity contests, and images of perfection (reinforcing the insecurity that “you are not enough”) are prevalent.
We all have the same deep fear of being wrong, criticized, and made to feel small. These experiences—in real life and in social media—cause a state of disconnection, both from ourselves and from other people. This can happen in obvious ways or in more subtle ways that add up over time. When we do not feel valued, when we feel insufficient, we fear being disconnected and alone. We feel shame and we want to hide or blame someone else. Shame creates further fear of social risk (“I won’t let that happen again”) and after enough shaming experiences, we stop putting ourselves out there. We don’t let ourselves be seen and our feeling of loneliness grows. It is a vicious cycle.
If we feel pressure to present only the positives in our life on social media (Vacation pictures! Romantic updates! Great interior design!) then we miss two prerequisites for real human connection: feeling safe enough to feel vulnerable and feeling comfortable enough to show our true selves.
What is a Real Connection?
What is a real human connection? We operate thinking we know what it means to be connected to people, but do we? Different people might describe it in different ways, but most people will define a real connection as having someone you can say is a true friend; knowing you have someone to talk to; feeling like you belong; and sharing yourself as you are.
Real connections are built over time, in small exchanges of mutual openness, curiosity, empathy, and generosity. Humans need real connections with others to thrive. As Dr. Brene Brown of the University of Houston explains, “We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Emotional safety is a key component of making real connections. Making real connections requires vulnerability and courage. We need acceptance and non-judgment to feel able to be psychologically honest and to take emotional risks.
Designing Your Digital Life for Real Connections
The digital world is shifting, if only incrementally at first, in response to increasing amounts of data on the negative effects of certain kinds of social media use, and the ubiquity of cyberbullying. Technologists like Eli Pariser are calling on social media to create “trustworthy online communities.” Instagram recently made the decision to remove likes visible on some posts. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri said, “The idea is to try and reduce anxiety and social comparisons, specifically with an eye towards young people.”
There is a new wave of social media platforms, signaling a move away from the ad-driven popularity algorithms that fuel the pressure to be perfect. More mission-driven technology companies are cropping up, poised to alleviate loneliness and promote real human connections. From on-demand therapy services like TalkSpace and trained listening services like 7 Cups, to social apps for honest one-on-one conversations like Friended, the market is responding to the need for safe, honest, encouraging human interaction.
It is already hard enough to put yourself out there to make a connection, never mind opening up and sharing vulnerable thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Social media, if used in the right way, has great potential to inspire and connect people. As social media evolves, it will be easier and easier to choose the platforms that afford you real human connections and the sense of belonging that we all crave.