Alone in Chicago

On Thursday evening I made my way to an event called The Anatomy of Connection at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The focus of the discussion was on the lack of connection and the epidemic that is loneliness as we become ever more connected via the devices in our hands (or pockets or purses or on the table… whatever – stop nitpicking).

Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of mortality than air pollution, drinking, and obesity. In one of the longest longitudinal studies of health and wellness, loneliness at age 50 had a higher predictive power of death than high cholesterol. It can suppress our immune systems, lead to depression and anxiety, and in severe cases, suicide. It’s such a problem that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Here in Chicago, a researcher had morning commuters do one of three things: engage the people around them in conversation, specifically avoid conversation with the people around them, and just go about their business as they would normally. At the beginning of the study, everybody who was tasked with talking to people thought, “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this!” By the end, those folks reported the highest amounts of happiness as compared to their counterparts.

The problem is that we all assume nobody wants to talk to us, so we don’t engage. We isolate ourselves in order to self preserve, then our empathy decreases as our defensiveness increases, and we start interpreting ambiguous social cues as negative. Moreover, it can be contagious as we all collectively avoid each other out of fear that we’ll get a weird look for saying hello or asking how someone’s doing today.

I know I’m guilty of this. I am a commuter in Chicago, and I certainly wouldn’t say I go out of my way to strike up conversations with people. I wouldn’t even say I go in my way to converse, given that folks are often pressed right up against me on crowded buses or trains. So, then what? Are we all just doomed to a life of self-perpetuating loneliness? Not if we put in the fucking effort!

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of A Road Less Traveled, said that “mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.” The therapist giving the presentation noted that we have to practice what he called, “radical acceptance.” We don’t have to approve of our state of loneliness, but we have to accept that things just aren’t right in order to go about fixing any of them.

I lost my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t replaced it. There are financial reasons involved, sure, but honestly I just don’t want a phone. I find my quality of life to be higher right now. Sure, there are parts of my day where I wish I could call an Uber or text a friend right when a thought comes up, but do you know what I do? I write that shit down, I take that note home via public transit, and I reach out when I get there.

As a result of my phonelessness, I’m more connected to the situations I’m in. I’m not constantly wondering how many Instagram followers I’ve gained in the last ten minutes since my post, I’m not wondering about any event updates for that thing coming up this weekend, I’m not fretting over an unexpected phone call (most of which I just let go to voicemail even when I do have the phone). It’s relaxing. As evidence of how fucked up I was as a result of having my phone in my pocket all the time, I occasionally think I feel my notepad buzzing in my pocket. Guess what? It is not.

On Thursday night, I walked away by myself, but in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I think more of us are lonely than we’re willing to acknowledge (or accept to stick with the vernacular). So do me a favor, if you see me on a train or on a bus or in an airport, say hi (and buy me a drink if we’re at the airport, as I’m likely at the bar). Talk to me about your day, and I’ll talk to you about mine. Wake me up from the dream state proliferated by the screen in front of my face or by the endless stream of what-if’s I’ve got running in my head. We can do this. Together.

We’re all gonna die someday, but if we chat about it with a little more frequency, we lower our chances that that day is tomorrow. Sláinte!