Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out

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There is an interesting phenomenon in Western society; in the words of one comedian: “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

We live in the most wealthy, technologically advanced society that has ever existed in the history of the world, and at the same time there are incredibly high rates of depression and mental illness which lead to suicide and acts of violence.

One key question many people are asking is: Why?  What is the cause of the increase in depression and mental illness in developed countries? 

The late Dutch psychiatrist J. H. van den Berg wrote and researched on the topic of psychopathology and he wrote a highly regarded book on the subject titled, A Different Existence: Principles of Phenomenological Psychopathology.

In this book, van den Berg uses a case study to analyze several common conceptions about psychiatric illness, and in the end he draws his conclusion from his research: that psychopathy is related to the experience of loneliness. Among his thesis statements, he declares:

“Loneliness is the nucleus of psychiatry.”

“If loneliness did not exist, we could reasonably assume that psychiatric illnesses would not occur either.” [105]

This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that it is generally recognized that Western society is experiencing loneliness at higher levels than ever before.

See: “A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It”

Our Society is Lonelier Than Ever Before

A survey taken by Harris Poll in 2016 showed that almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Americans experience loneliness.1

Our time has been called “the age of loneliness.” Although we are more connected than ever before via the internet, the internet itself is exacerbating the problem.

In January of this year, the United Kingdom appointed its first “Minister for Loneliness”, who is tasked with helping to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life.”

Loneliness is Literally Killing Us

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 75-year study of men, concluded that loneliness is toxic. Loneliness is contagious, and the more isolated people are, the less happy they are, and brain function declines as well as physical health. 2

Medical studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” 3

How Do We Break Out of this Toxic Cycle?

One really important factor is that we must recognize that Western society has been sold a bill of goods related to individualism and the “autonomous self”. American culture, in many ways, is permeated by a culture of fear and an obsession with privacy. We have been told since the Enlightenment that this is the ultimate path to happiness, but the above data shows just how much it has left us in tatters.

The gospel shows us another way:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

When a person embraces the gospel, they become part of the people of God. Sinclair Ferguson put it this way:

 “We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

The Apostle Paul makes this point as well:    

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God  (Ephesians 2:19)

In other words: part of God’s work of salvation through Jesus includes saving people out of individualism, calling them into redeemed community which has a mission and a purpose bigger than any individual member. Clearly this presents a powerful antidote to the modern pathological phenomenon of loneliness and isolation. The gospel is a holistic remedy which addresses the greatest needs of the entire person: soul, mind and body. It is truly good news.

2 thoughts on “Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out

  1. It is not easy to find people who want to spend time together and not spend it all on their mobile devices. People are only virtual friends now.
    Also, being part of a church does not guarantee loneliness will decrease. i heard the gospel a long time ago and my loneliness and depression has only gotten worse.

    1. An interesting point that I came across in researching this topic is that loneliness is a subjective feeling or sense that someone has. They “feel” lonely, but there is no way for anyone else to measure their perception or feeling. It’s a feeling. On the other hand, isolation is an objective factor which can be measured. What they said is that isolation leads to loneliness. And while we cannot combat people’s feelings (loneliness), we can combat their isolation in tangible ways.
      I think it is beyond fair to say that your involvement in church has resulted in you being less isolated than you would have been otherwise. By you being present and attending Sunday mornings and community groups, you are not experiencing the isolation which you could easily experience in our digital age of virtual relationships. The point is, without your involvement in Christian community, you would have been worse off from an isolation standpoint, which would have led to increased feelings of loneliness than those you are experiencing now.

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