- Loneliness is not a personal problem but, rather, a social epidemic, interconnected with the history of capitalism and individualism.
- In capitalism, we lose our worth through exploitation, much like a lonely commodity.
- By operating on a superficial level, we lose depth and become lonely.
Coauthored with Victoria Bulgier
We have always communicated through paintings, dancing, or symbols to foster connection. Driven by the desire to mate, we feel attracted to one another. Our communication has driven evolution and how we understand interactions. Yet, despite our technological and scientific advancement, our modern society is confronted with the loneliness epidemic. Loneliness is a feeling that we are consumed by but know relatively little about. It is a social pandemic whose negative consequences are perhaps as severe as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an insidious social disease that invites many mental health issues. Loneliness, as Mother Teresa put it, is “the most terrible poverty.”
Consumption and loneliness are interconnected. We all strive to fulfill the voids in our lives by any means necessary. But the more we consume, the more voids we have. When consumption fails to fulfill our voids, we nonetheless feel compelled to continue along the path of consumption—a version of insanity we have found comfort in. We are often distressed by of pervasiveness of loneliness in our society. A Harvard report suggests that 36 percent of Americans suffer from “serious loneliness.” Of course, the global COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the loneliness epidemic. But what are the systematic causes of loneliness?
5 Perspectives: Freud, Adorno, Marx, Debord, and Schopenhauer
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that humans are aggressive by nature and that civilization makes us generally unhappy. Freud suggests that civilization fails to satisfy our collective desires. Presently, we are witnessing a rise to a technological civilization powered by networks of screens. We consume beyond our needs and worship machines that propel our civilization forward. From our insatiable consumption, we have seemingly lost touch with ourselves and with one another. As a result, we have driven ourselves into a perpetual state of loneliness. Although we are consumed by platforms that aim to connect us, we spend our time exercising negativity.
In Cultural Industry Reconsidered, Theodor Adorno argues that the capitalist nature of society projects the illusion that money can be exchanged for happiness. He argues that popular culture is standardized to appeal to the masses. When we are exposed to standardized versions of beauty, success, and expressions, we become trapped in a state of displeasure. Adorno asserts that the push for sameness across society is disguised by product design and various marketing techniques that present the illusion of freedom and choice. He argues that the grip of capitalist society pressures individuals to engage in the process of marking their individual stamp on existence. In essence, we are put under the impression that we are operating collectively yet we are largely operating alone.
In Das Kapital, Karl Marx argues that commodities are governed by use-value. Marx suggests that a commodity is tied to its material use-value. However, as soon as a product is considered a commodity, it becomes recognizable for its exchange value, where its worth is deemed inherent and uninfluenced by the laborer. From this perspective, the laborer remains largely invisible, given how the act of exchange forges a relationship between products. Therefore, the laborer no longer reaps the greatest benefits from commodity exchange, but rather the various institutions and corporations that consistently exploit the laborer. Failing to recognize the human contribution behind commodities has alienated us from one another and exacerbated the loneliness epidemic.
In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord articulates a capitalist-driven world known as the spectacle, where mass media seeks to distract and pacify the masses through the proliferation of advertising, television, and celebrity. Debord argues that the spectacle is a type of domination that distorts reality in a way that is commodifiable and disseminated to the masses in the form of appearances. Capitalism and the rise of television have created the ideal conditions for the emergence of the spectacle. A space where commodities rule people, the spectacle is defined by the consumption of illusions.
In On the Suffering of the World, Arthur Schopenhauer argues that existence is intrinsically meaningless. Given how much of our existence is driven by the consumption of moments, interactions, and things, it places us in a unique predicament. We are so enthralled by the idea of our existence continuing elsewhere that we have become distant to our current one. When we hope for the future and for our existence to live on, it suggests that our current existence is not worth much, thus preventing us from living in the present. By living in the expectation of better things, Schopenhauer argues that we long for the past while neglecting the present. He suggests that the past never fades and that we use the present and our hopes for the future as a means of recreating moments, feelings, and connections that no longer remain.
Capitalism, Consumption, and Loneliness
Those functioning under the thumb of capitalism are fed to the machine early on. They are packaged by the forces of domination, only to be spit out and marketed to the masses for consumption. Although human commercialization takes many forms, we lose our worth through wear and misuse, much like a commodity. Capitalist society constantly feeds us messages through clever marketing schemes. While our consumption may take place on a mass level, we are largely consuming on an individual basis.
We consume at a rate that aims to satisfy our needs, but when we are in possession of the thing that is intended to satisfy a certain need, we remain largely unsatisfied—an illusion that society feeds us. By standardizing certain commodities, society plants needs and desires in our minds as a way to keep the capitalist machine running smoothly. The voids that we often feel consumed by are brought about and sustained by the illusion that we need more than we think. This builds a certain kind of hunger within us—one where our stomachs and mouths are full yet we are still left craving the next bite.
When we immerse ourselves in our career and work harder to lead a better life, we live for the future instead of for the present. This mentality is what keeps the capitalist society afloat. Our ability to allow these thoughts to inhabit our mind keeps us drifting farther away from the engagements and human interactions that could bring these visions of the future to life sooner. This unrelenting commodification of our personhood drives us further into a crippling loneliness and prevents us from understanding ourselves and one another.
Contemporary society has evolved in a way that actively seeks to suppress humanity’s inclination for connection. Much of our worth is assessed at face value as evident on our engagement with dating apps, social media, and professional networks. Often, we enter these online marketplaces with the intent to connect and engage, but the majority of our interactions revolve around our apparent commodification. Falling in sync with capitalist society, we employ a series of clever marketing schemes. We have become fluent in the language of capitalism based on how we market ourselves to one another.
The constant buying and selling of our personhood fuels our loneliness on a number of levels. Rather than looking inwardly to assess our value, we rely heavily on the opinions of others to determine our self-worth. So much of who we are now amounts to what we can offer on the surface instead of what lies on the inside. This is evident based on the desire to satisfy our narcissistic tendencies through convenience and self-gratification.
We largely operate on a superficial level, which can make it difficult for us to confront and articulate our feelings. Attraction is largely built on what is visibly appealing, as opposed to the type of person we are—how we conduct ourselves, what we stand for, and how we treat others. We are checking boxes in our pursuit of companionship instead of actively working to understand ourselves and what that may reveal about the people whom we ultimately attract.
With so much of our lives reduced to a screen, we have become lazy and foreign to the idea of uncovering what lies beneath the surface. We are resistant to acknowledging our feelings and emotions because we consistently supplement reality with artificial sensation. We are inundated with virtual reality, representations, and artificial intelligence—which have desensitized us to what comes naturally.
Our social networks may be expanding, but our ability to foster social intimacy is virtually nonexistent. The highly addictive and all-consuming nature of our technology conditions us to believe that we are connected when we are not. On the surface, we seek a quick fix and pleasure, but deep down there is a desire to satisfy a hunger for meaning and understanding. This paradox convinces us that surface-level pursuits will result in some type of deeper satisfaction.
We are communicating without interacting, which is why we are purely alone in everything. No one processes feelings and experiences in the same exact way, which further supports the notion that we are perpetually alone through everything. We are receiving a constant stream of messages, but how we ultimately choose to embrace such messages could transform illusion into reality.
Loneliness is not a personal problem but a social epidemic interconnected with the history of capitalism and individualism. Loneliness has been built into the structure of the modern social order. So, if we aim to address the epidemic of loneliness, we ought to carefully reassess our social order. We should have the right diagnosis to heal lonely people in our lonely times.
Victoria Bulgier earned an MSEd from the University of Pennsylvania.