- Loneliness has been exacerbated by increased reliance on social media and cell phones to meet social needs.
- In-person contacts provide more opportunities for empathic identification than truncated experiences.
- Empathy supplies the emotional glue for meaningful attachments.
With increased national concern about the rapid rise in loneliness accompanying the pandemic, questions about why people are so lonely and what can be done about it proliferate. From the “Building Connections Collective” in the US, which is a group of 10 national organizations researching the topic, to the United Kingdom’s and Japan’s appointment of a “minister for loneliness,” remedial efforts take on a variety of appearances. Japan’s recent appointment of a loneliness minister followed a rise in suicide rates in the country for the first time in over a decade.
As for the root causes of loneliness (the rate has been estimated to be as high as one in five Americans), the hypotheses range from Americans’ sense of self-reliance and unwillingness to seek help to the self-esteem movement and its overemphasis on attaining personal happiness at the expense of others. In the US, personal freedom appears to have supplanted community welfare as a top priority within some groups.
A cause of loneliness that has not been sufficiently explored is the impact of social media and technology on loneliness. Because texting and cell phones are now the primary means of communication in the US, many young people lack the necessary social skills to make meaningful connections. In-person contacts, where many aspects of another person (tone of voice, inflections, gestures, facial expressions, and words) can be experienced, require practice and spontaneity. Because the pandemic provided few occasions for face-to-face experiences, except for FaceTime and Zoom, opportunities for empathic identification with others have been sadly lacking. In-person contacts have greater identification potential than more truncated experiences and therefore more occasions for empathy to develop.
Empathy: The Connective Tissue in Relationships
Empathic listening, which is the most important relationship tool around, helps us to connect emotionally with others and feel less isolated. Basically, empathy is the action or capacity of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and/or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. It is understanding where another person is coming from and communicating that understanding in meaningful language. It involves paying attention not only to the words of another person but also to feelings, which are expressed most clearly in nonverbal behavior. In fact, communication research has shown that nonverbal behavior is far more important than words in conveying meaning.
To communicate with empathy, the language needs to be geared to the emotional and intellectual level of the other person. If a kindergartner is upset because a classmate scribbled all over her coloring book, an empathic teacher or parent would respond at the youngster’s level. Talking about injustice and the rights of others in a scholarly manner would not communicate understanding to a 5-year-old, but speaking about her feelings—about how badly she feels when a mean kid ruined her coloring book—most certainly would. Emotional language and slang expressions are better at communicating empathy at every age than more abstract concepts.
Via empathic identification, we are able to understand not only similar people but also the feelings of people who are different from us. Whether the difference lies in skin color, gender, cultural/national background, political orientation, or socioeconomic level, the difference becomes immaterial when we empathically listen and discover the universal human characteristics that connect us.
A Universal Need for Understanding
We all want to be understood—a fundamental need evident in early development with the toddler’s repeated attempts to articulate sounds. This need, which gets more sophisticated as language matures, is manifest in people of all ages and cultures. The need for understanding is apparent in young lovers who spend untold hours huddled together in conversation about their lives and dreams. It is evident in groups of men talking together while playing darts or watching games in sports bars, as well as in groups of women sitting together in corporate lunch rooms, book clubs, or knitting circles. The desire to be understood by others and emotionally connected to them is basic to human nature.
The rudiments of empathy are evident even in very young children. On one occasion, a little girl younger than 3 years of age, after falling and hurting her knee, said through her tears, “Just like you, Grams.” Apparently, she identified her own pain with that of her grandmother, who had recently undergone knee replacements.
The Benefits of Empathy
In general, empathy strengthens our humanity—our compassion, sympathy, and consideration of others. We tend to identify with victims of all kinds and experience empathically their anguish and distress. We can identify with victims of rape or assault, parents who have lost children, wives grieving for deceased husbands, and soldiers mourning the deaths of their fellow combatants. In all these instances, we can feel empathy for the lost, bullied, abandoned, and/or tortured—a compassionate identification with others that unites us and motivates our charitable behavior.
In support groups, the longer-lasting, healing benefits of empathy can be found. In these groups, patients regularly listen with care and compassion to one another, gaining hope from those who are hopeful and providing hope to the hopeless. Such groups are based on the premise that empathic people sharing similar experiences can heal one another, a hypothesis regularly borne out in groups such as AA.
Lonely people who are excessively attached to their smartphones and computers need to reduce their involvement with these devices and try out more in-person contacts, where there is a greater likelihood of empathic identification. There, talking with others about ordinary topics, such as the weather, grocery stores, sporting events, or restaurants (wherever there is a shared experience), can lead to conversations about deeper issues. Besides developing a perspective about our shared humanity, such in-person contacts can provide an opportunity to express one’s vulnerability. For example, talking with others about the difficulty in developing meaningful relationships in our techy world would be a worthwhile topic in which to share one’s concerns.
Support groups for the lonely would also be invaluable. The basic requirement of being in the same place with others sharing similar feelings can reduce the sense of isolation and increase emotional connectivity with others. In addition, talking about loneliness with supportive people would alleviate the stress of being lonely, thus freeing up energy for other creative pursuits.
This post is adapted from an essay, “Empathy and Healthy Religion Go Hand in Hand,” published in Beyond Pipe Dreams and Platitudes: Insights on Love, luck, and Narcissism From a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press, 2021.