There are 2 key drivers behind the increase in feelings of isolation:
1. Technology erodes meaningful relationships
Whilst technology, particularly social media and instant messaging apps, makes it far easier to be 'connected' to many other people this comes at the expense of the depth of those relationships. Trading Instagram likes does not make a meaningful friendship. That requires being with someone for longer periods of time in settings where you can get into the deeper stuff. If you add in the fact that technology now frees us from our desk it compounds the issue by meaning that we often see less people, for less time, each day. Technology creates the illusion of connection without true connections being given chance to be established.
2. We are losing the skills required to be alone
There is nothing inherently dangerous about being alone for periods of time, however if we have lost the skills to do so it becomes a more difficult situation. Consider this - when you get left alone, say when a friend goes to the toilet in a bar or the person you're meeting with takes a phone call, what do you do? I would put a lot of money on the fact that you quickly open your phone. This does 2 things - it helps protect you against what you think others might be thinking about you being sat on your own (you're now communicating that I am busy and have friends, they just aren't here) and it numbs you and distracts you from sitting with your own thoughts. This clearly is a short term fix that creates a longer term problem given the fact that we are spending more time alone. Now we feel uncomfortable being left with our thoughts so we numb and distract, exacerbating the feelings of isolation. This is further driven by the fact that we usually check social media at such moments where we get to see the highlight reel of everyone else's life which is usually in stark contrast to the mundane day to day of our own.
So given these 2 points above what are we to do about it? The list below is one that I've pulled together based on the literature and engaging with local experts on the topic:
- Create rituals with your social group; As we get busier it can be much harder to fit social activities or time for meaningful connections into our lives. One of the key messages from the research is to build rituals into your social life that gives regular touch points for connection that you can look forward to. For example you might meet your friends every friday evening at a certain bar, always have a movie night on a monday or you might have a team breakfast with work colleagues before a certain meeting or have a lunch club. These events don't need to be particularly special, their value is in their regular nature, it becomes an unspoken thing that just is, no messages need to be sent, you all just see each other and touch base at these times.
- Practice isolation: If you are alone then train yourself for it, don't immediately reach for your phone, allow yourself to be with your thoughts. Alone time can be immensely precious so utilise it, take the opportunity to think deeply on something, organise the rest of your day or even better - practice being mindful or grateful, pay attention to the little things around you and count your blessings. All of this will make solo time much less scary.
- Have a team hobby: Watch any team sport and you will observe a proliferation or arse taps, high fives and general human contact. This happens because it releases oxytocin - this is the hormone that binds us to other people and makes us feel connected. In our highly sanitised working worlds we don't get much opportunity for oxytocin release so find it elsewhere and appreciate the benefits of the hormonal connection it creates.
- Switch virtual to face to face: If you want to have a conversation with someone don't whatsapp them or send them an email, try to meet if it is remotely practical. Especially at work, get up and go and speak to someone or arrange a certain time where you can both discuss in person. Yes it takes more time but for the complex, emotional or meaningful things it is important and beneficial.
- Find a coach/mentor/counsellor: We don't get many opportunities to take a step back and reflect on where we are and how things are going. This is further reinforced by the dearth of meaningful connections in many people's lives. it can therefore be a powerful idea to find a coach or book in with a counsellor. There doesn't need to be anything wrong to do this, everyone will find it beneficial, turn the mirror round on you for a bit and it will help with all of the above.