1 May 2018

Why It's Easy To Feel Alone On A Crowded Planet

In the famous Great Dictator Speech by Charlie Chaplin, when referring to technology and communication he states “The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men - cries out for universal brotherhood - for the unity of us all.” It’s true, technology has connected the world. Within seconds we have the ability to communicate with another person in the most remote parts of the world, whether that’s via telephone, email, social media or video call. We are in what the philosopher Ken Wilber refers to as ‘the integrated age’. Simply within a few miles of where you live you will likely have access to different cuisines, different languages, different fashions and different cultures from all over the world. We are living in a time of the least amount of violence in human history, we’ve become more tolerant of other people’s beliefs, backgrounds, skin pigmentation and lifestyle than ever before, due to our incredible ability to access information. It is without a doubt that technology has allowed us to widen our scope when it comes to the numerous lifestyles that are available for us to lead as humans. As a writer once said “We have the most phenomenal invention of the world in our pockets. I can ask any question in human history, any fact a human has ever known, and it can give me an answer in seconds, yet most of us use this machinery to watch videos of cats”.

In Psychology there is something known as a Pleasure Triangle. This simply means that if a particular action hits 3 specific criteria perfectly, we will be more likely to take that action than any other choice. The 3 points that have to be hit are: avoid pain, receive pleasure, and conserve energy as efficiently as possible. Technology allows us to do this perfectly. By using a laptop or phone I can order food to my home, communicate with my friends, purchase complex items and for many of us even conduct our work. I avoid pain by minimising my risk of dangerous incidents (safer indoors than outdoors), I gain pleasure by completing the tasks I need to do, and I conserve energy by not even needing to leave the house. With social media, entertainment on tap and search engines, this technological utopia can allow us to function in society without even getting out of bed. A paradise at first, but you can see the point that’s trying to be made here… we have an evolutionary mismatch where it’s become easier and easier to survive in isolation. In modern society we can now create a comfort zone in which it’s the norm to experience long periods of isolation. Despite being able to function in communities like cities, our “tribe” has increased from 150 people our ancestors were used to connecting with, to over 1,000,000 members and our sense of community is being lost. Our comfort zone has changed. Suddenly the community we had in the Blitz has transformed over the decades from having a comfort zone the size of a town, to being no bigger than a house, and for many of us now our comfort zone (the place we feel most safe) is no bigger than our bedroom. It’s never been so easy to draw the parallels between modern day depression and the hibernating caveman who pulled the rug over his head because the ice was too dangerous outside of his cave.

What’s worse to a prisoner than sharing a room with a murderer or rapist? It’s solitary confinement. There seems to be no higher level of retribution than forcing someone to be alone, but we don’t always feel alone, do we? After all, our friends are only a click and a swipe away and suddenly we are one conscious being speaking to another. So, we are connected surely?

We need physical interaction to release that flow of oxytocin in our body. Even though we have access to hundreds of friends on social media with the ability to contact them within seconds, yes, we’re hitting the 3 points of the Pleasure Triangle but despite conserving energy, this illusion of connection doesn’t change our biochemistry. We are not receiving the warm hug of oxytocin that is so heavily embedded in our core needs as humans.

You can see that as the radius of our bubble of comfort has decreased over time, it has detached us further from our human need for connection, not only disturbing the release of oxytocin but also removing many of us from our sense of purpose.

Social media and communication through technology has not only given us an illusion of connection, it’s also given us an illusion of competition. Because technology has widened our scope to a larger community, it has opened up our potential network to more than 3 billion people online. It has also raised our expectations.

In a society 50,000 years ago, living in a tribe of 100-150, if we were to remove the extreme ages we’d have a finite selection of potential partners, so chances are you’d think of yourself as a pretty attractive person! For a teenager today, social media allows us to compare the mundane moments of our own lives to the photoshopped highlight reels of people around the world. It’s much easier to feel inadequate in today’s society than compared to our ancestors. Modelling agencies find the most gorgeous people on the planet and unveil them before our eyes consistently on billboards, televisions and through social media exposing us constantly to unrealistic standards of beauty.

Everyday millions of companies are competing for our attention. Frequently they use scare tactics to make us buy their products, raise our expectations and barrage us with so called better ways to fit into our community. We are being given a subconscious message on repeat that we’re not enough and we don’t belong… not yet anyway. To be approved by your community, buy this car! To be approved by your community and fit in, have a peachy perfect bum! To mean anything in this community and earn the approval of your peers, get this phone! Suddenly we’ve created something popularly referred to as FOMO, the fear of missing out. What is FOMO really, other than the fear of losing connection to the community? If you woke up one day and there was no one else on this planet, you were completely alone without competition or connection. Would you have the same goals? Would you still want the fast car and the same house and job? Being the only person alive you could have all those things. You could have every car, move to a new mansion every day. But wouldn’t something feel different?

It shouldn’t be unsurprising that people in modern society are suffering from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and body issues; when day to day we’re being told on repeat that we’re not good enough. Feeling alienated from our tribe is one of the greatest ways to kick our biochemistry out of balance. The emotional centre in our mind can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality. By being jacked-in to a virtual world where everyone seems healthy, happy and everyone is enough but us, we are given unrealistic expectations and have built a false reality that has created a real symptom of low self-esteem. We’re bombarded by these images and messages constantly, and we forget the truth that 25% of people we meet are suffering from a mental health disorder and 35% are obese.


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