The Startling Science Behind Our Loneliness Crisis — And What To Do About It
In today’s digital world, we enjoy unlimited access to our social networks. Some argue that we are more connected than ever before thanks to our access to text, email, and the social media that's at our fingertips. Yet despite advances in technology, we find ourselves in a loneliness crisis. The quantity of our communication may have increased, but has the quality?
I see manifestations of this in my practice constantly. My patients report daily contact with their peers through text and social media, yet they are overwhelmed with anxiety and feeling disconnected. When I ask them who in their life knows about the challenges they're experiencing, the most common answer is "nobody." Why is this happening? There’s no one easy answer, but one piece of the puzzle is better understanding what technology does, and does not do, for our brain.
Our brains play a large role in our emotional health. They emit specific chemicals traditionally linked to happiness, including the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, associated with pleasure and motivation, is triggered by expectation and reinforcement of reward. Studies have found that texting and using social media cause a surge of dopamine. So shouldn’t our excessive smartphone use be making us happier?
As it turns out, it's not that simple. Recently, some experts have reexamined what we understand about the brain and emotional health. Dr. Robert Lustig, author of a new book on the neuroscience of happiness, explains that the pleasure triggered by dopamine is actually a distinctly separate feeling from that of happiness. In fact, chronic dopamine overload is linked to addiction and depression, two of the loneliest and unhappiest states of the human condition. Dr. Lustig explains that happiness is actually more about a sense of fulfillment, contentment, and belonging. These feelings, he says, are triggered by the neurotransmitter serotonin, most of which is produced in our gut.
Other research shows that digital communication does not aid our quest for happiness and connection in part because technology does not stimulate the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin, often called the "bonding hormone," is a neuropeptide produced in the brain that is triggered by physical contact with others. We rely on oxytocin to build intimacy, trust, and healthy relationships.
Understanding that our digital interactions are triggering some, but not all, of the chemicals we need for optimal emotional health might give us some clues as to why being connected isn't translating into feeling connected. Taking this into account, here are three things to consider when you're working on connecting with others:
1. Use technology as a supplement, not a substitute, for communication.
I’m not here to tell you to ignore your emails and texts or never check your social media ever again. Technology is a part of our lives. But just as our brain requires a variety of neurotransmitters to achieve well-rounded happiness, our relationships need more TLC than just the click of a button. Don’t let a busy schedule or tiring commute prevent you from prioritizing the relationships that you care about.
2. Follow up and ask questions.
Do you remember being told to send a thank you email after a job interview? That’s because people tend to take note of effort and follow-through. Apply this same logic to your personal relationships. Does your friend have a big presentation coming up at work? Did she move into a new apartment? Ask how the presentation went. Don’t just "like" the picture of her new apartment—go see it. Effort demonstrates empathy and connection by showing that you are truly investing in the relationship.
3. Let the people close to you know how you're really doing.
We are so much more than our online personas! We experience a multitude of emotions every day, including negative and unpleasant ones. We all make mistakes, get rejected, and feel lonely. Sharing these parts of our lives with loved ones is part of what makes us human. Brain science is now finding that part of how we develop empathy is by mimicking the behaviors of others. Consider leading by example and sharing a stress you’re facing with someone close to you. You might be surprised at the support you receive in return.
Intrigued by this science? Read up on how to set healthy boundaries around your smartphone.