Aristotle famously opined that “man is a social animal” and any man who saw himself not in need of society was either above or below human. The assertion that man is inextricably tied to society has underpinned ideologies from Conservatism to Socialism, discussions of individualism and society often come hand in hand. The wisdom of Aristotle’s musings are not only evidenced by its recurrence in Western political theory, it is also medically backed- one only has to look at the devastating physical effects of social isolation and loneliness to understand that man was not made to be solitary.
In an age where old school acquaintances are just a Facebook add or Instagram follow away it seems remarkable that social isolation still holds a stifling grip over many lives- perhaps social media has encouraged a false belief that we are ever so close to loved ones when often we are literally alone. Our era is increasingly described in phrases that connote closeness “globalised”, “international” etc, social isolation in such an era seems oxymoronic. Benedict Andersen’s “Imagined Communities”, published in 1983, argued that it was easier than ever for someone to imagine the life of another individual in an entirely separate country, since the publication of “Imagined Communities” the distance of communication has shrunk further. For instance, I can text my cousin in Dubai and expect my message to reach her in a matter of seconds, in fact I’d argue that during my own bout with loneliness she was more aware of my physical well-being than my flatmates in the neighbouring dormitories. Yet descriptors such as “globalised” evoke a vastness that contradicts closeness, this macrocosmic contradiction of vastness and interconnectedness has created irreconcilable truths in the microcosmic world; we believe that we have access to friends and at the same time, the limitless vista of communication has rendered many lost.
How can social isolation and isolation be defined?
It is perhaps best to separate out social isolation and isolation differing categories. Loneliness is the emotion that often accompanies social isolation, social isolation is the condition of being alone. Both loneliness and social isolation manifest themselves in a plethora of ways, social isolation primarily involves a declining engagement with society as a whole, lonely people can be surrounded by others and yet feel disengaged. Erin York Conwell and Linda J.Waite differentiated between social isolation and loneliness, and social disconnectedness and perceived isolation, they agreed with the concept that social isolation referred to a “lack of integration” whereas loneliness generally meant not feeling “embedded” within society. Social disconnectedness, they argue, is a lack of social contact (not many friends, hardly goes out and interacts etc etc) whereas perceived isolation is, as the name indicates, subjective- perhaps the individual is experiencing loneliness or their friendship group has decreased.
What are the effects of social isolation and loneliness?
The effects of social isolation on well-being are shown by a multitude of studies. Take for instance Harlow’s monkey, his investigation found that some of the monkeys placed in total isolation exhibited emotional anorexia when introduced to social interaction; this phenomenon claimed the life of one monkey and would’ve claimed the life of another had it not been force-fed. It has been theorised that gastronomical issues can arise as a result, social isolation unsurprisingly correlates with suicidal behaviour, insomnia, hallucinations. As BBC article “How extreme isolation warps the mind” by Michael Bond states, “Chronically lonely people have higher blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection and are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia”, our cognitive abilities decrease- logic and verbal reasoning in particular suffer. However, it has been theorised that the link between social isolation and hallucination is due to individuals not having others that will keep their thoughts in check. The health risk of social isolation is comparable to the effects of cigarette smoking, in 2006 a study conducted amongst 2800 women with breast cancer found that those with less social contact were five times more likely to die from their disease.
Social isolation, loneliness and university students-
When confiding in my sister about my experience of loneliness in first year she noted that my experience appeared to be one of many, intrigued by this statement I set out to investigate. I decided to conduct a survey amongst fellow university students, it has to be noted that social isolation seems to have been conflated with loneliness. For example, more than half felt isolated and saw a decline in their well-being, yet more than half had engaged with lectures, university social events and felt as though they could contact friends when they were down. My unscientific survey found a general trend of loneliness amongst university students. Perhaps being faced with the difficulty of forming friendships quickly coupled with less contact hours than school meant that most university students were startled and ill-equipped to deal with the new setting? The survey found that most participants either lived at home or went abroad for university (43.75% for both), yet 75% of students stated that they felt isolated. A few of the individuals I contacted cited the failure to make new, solid friendships at university, many international students cited a culture difference and things being not quite the same as before.
How can loneliness/social isolation be escaped?
There is of course less choice in social isolation, which is often more permanent than loneliness. Those experiencing long run-ins with loneliness should perhaps take a break from social media apps and other proxies for real face-to-face interactions, and consistent engagement with society is key.
By Céline F.A.S