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Extended Loneliness Can Make You More Vulnerable to Extremist Views

7 minute read
Stulberg is author of the new book Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything is Changing – Including You, from which this essay is adapted

A few weeks ago, I was shopping at my local gardening store here in Asheville, North Carolina, when I got some unsolicited advice about prepping for the apocalypse.

“You’ve got to harvest seeds for whatever food you want to eat so that you can grow your own,” the woman at the register told me. She went on to explain that she had heard all the grocery stores are going to close thanks to some combination of COVID-19, inflation, and social unrest, so she was growing her own food to survive when America becomes, in her words, a “free-for-all.”

To be sure, there is plenty to fear in the modern world, but a total breakdown of society of the scale that the clerk described seems unlikely. While her concerns are indeed valid, I see the intensity of her fear and doom spiraling as indicative of a broader “bunker” mentality, a manifestation of what some psychiatrists have called a “shared psychosis,” in which increasing numbers of people are living in alternative realities and preparing for doomsday scenarios by building isolated outposts, stocking up on supplies, and living off the grid.

The trap is, of course, that you could spend your entire life arranging for the end of times instead of enjoying what limited time you have. And while there are many forces contributing to its recent proliferation, I suspect that much of the doomsday paranoia springs from loneliness—an ongoing problem that the COVID pandemic made worse.

The research of John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, shows that when people feel lonely, they also feel insecure. Though they may not actually be in any sort of physical danger, extended solitude makes the mind-body system begin scanning for threats and firing warning signals. That leads to elevated stress hormones, high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, and some research suggests, increased risk for early mortality.

Loneliness tends to build on itself. Dr. Cacioppo found that when someone is lonely for an extended period of time they become more likely to further isolate, which in turn makes them even lonelier—and thus more anxious, insecure, and fearful. This may be exacerbated by a cutthroat economy in which those struggling to make it have little or no time to build community, and those at the top all too often suffer from status-driven workaholism, which also crowds out time for social connection. In fact, a 2021 study published in The British Journal of Psychology found that “neoliberalism can reduce well-being by promoting a sense of social disconnection, competition, and loneliness.”

These findings echo what I found in reporting for my recent book, The Practice of Groundedness: When we are constantly focused on the next thing and trying to gain a comparative advantage, we generally don’t build great connections. We too often prioritize productivity over people, optimization over community. This may feel good in the short-run but it tends to leave us worse off in the long-run.

“Uprootedness” and its societal impacts

The variety of loneliness we are experiencing today is both broad and deep, akin to what the mid-twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt called “uprootedness.” Uprootedness describes the experience of being disconnected not only from other people but also from yourself. It is when you become so distracted—when life feels so frantic and frenetic—that you lose the ability to think your own thoughts; you feel as if you are never really here, never really there, always kind of everywhere. You become not only isolated from others, but also isolated from a deeper sense of yourself. In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt suggests that this type of uprootedness leads to tribalism, and worse, totalitarianism. Extremist movements allow people to “escape from disintegration and disorientation,” she writes. “The isolation of atomized individuals provides the mass basis for totalitarian rule.”

Another 1951 book, The True Believer, by the philosopher Eric Hoffer, posits that “the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure,” and that “estrangement from the self” is a precondition to joining a mass ideological movement.

Recent research bolsters Arendt and Hoffer’s assertions. A 2020 study published in the journal Group Processing and Intergroup Relations found that social exclusion is a leading factor behind radicalization. A 2021 study conducted by researchers at RAND Corporation found that loneliness is one of the predominant reasons people adopt extremist views and join extremist groups. A study published earlier this year in the journal Political Psychology found that “weak social belonging is associated with an increased probability to vote for populist parties,” especially on the right.

Perhaps the only thing that has changed since the days of Arendt and Hoffer are the sources of our uprootedness and their heightened intensity. The attention economy, most notably social media, constantly distracts us and feeds off outrage and division, all the while replacing authentic connection with a superficial and shallow variety. Today’s political discourse plays right into the algorithms’ penchant for outrage and hostility; research shows that divisive and angry posts perform much better on social media platforms than cool-headed ones.

In other words, millions of Americans spend hours staring into screens with programming that erodes our ability to concentrate and think deeply—all the while incentivizing fear and division. All of this unfolds under the guise of “connection” which, in reality, looks a lot more like disconnection.

Is it any surprise, then, that we are seeing an extremely polarized society, with the rise of totalitarian tendencies on the right, and in-group versus out-group struggles on the left? (To be clear, the former is far more dangerous, but the latter is real, too.)

Read More: The U.S. is Heading Toward a Second Civil War. Here Is How We Avoid It

There may also be a rural-urban divide, as rural areas tend to be even more isolated, which, for some, increases paranoia and fear. In her book Hope In the Dark, the essayist Rebecca Solnit captures this masterfully, writing that “people who are already isolated in suburbs and other alienated landscapes, far from crime, outside key targets for war or terror, are far more vulnerable to these fears, which seem not false but displaced.” She goes on to acknowledge that their fear is real, but its subject is wrong: “In this sense, it is a safe fear, since to acknowledge the real sources of fear [isolation and loneliness] might itself be frightening, calling for radical questioning, radical change.”

Loneliness is a sociopolitical problem, too

What to do about this? From a policy perspective, we’d be wise to focus on loneliness not only as a public health problem but as a sociopolitical one, too. We must also realize that as our lives become increasingly automated and optimized, in what Ross Douthat calls the “Age of the Algorithm,” opportunities for creativity, mind-wandering, and real-life social connection will be further crowded out. As a result, people are likely to feel even more isolated and lonely, and thus more fearful and vulnerable to extreme ideas and movements.

As individuals, we’ve got to understand that the attention economy is disconnecting us from others and even ourselves. Simply reflect on the quality of your mind at the end of a day during which you got sucked into a social media rabbit hole. I call this “internet brain,” and anyone who has experienced it—which is to say just about everyone—understands the fog, generalized irritation, inability to focus on anything of depth, and numbing exhaustion I’m talking about.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we’ve got to make sure we protect and prioritize time to stay connected to our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves—to focus on developing a steady and firm sense of groundedness, lest we get lost in the whirlwind and risk becoming one of Arendt’s “isolated and atomized individuals,” waiting for the end of times in a bunker, incessantly clicking on whatever contrived train wreck is trending on the internet, sowing the seeds of loneliness and despair.

That’s not good for you—or for anyone.

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