As you may have already heard, the US suicide rate dropped 6% last year. During a pandemic. During a lockdown. During a time when rates of depression have reportedly increased. This is all quite surprising to many people, myself included. I don’t have a convincing explanation, only a single relevant thought.
I think we’ve rediscovered regular long-distance communication with people that have drifted out of our lives and many of us are better for it. I know I am.
While I think that loneliness and isolation are major force behind a lot of social ills, I also know that the “loneliness epidemic” was always a poorly constructed metaphor at best, and possibly only weakly observed at worst. But I also suspect that loneliness and isolation are phenomena in the tails of the distribution. Isolation doesn’t happen to people with average or even below-average social networks. It happens to people entirely without them, for whom their strongest connections with other humans have dissolved. Such things do not always reveal themselves statistically, at least not without looking really hard.
We have observed the emergence, and now dominance, of asynchronous communication. We text, email, tweet. We post on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or TikTok. These are all means of communication, but (with the possible exception of texting) these forms of communication exist outside of real-time. They don’t command chunks of contiguous time– they arbitrage the fractions of time that previously existed between activities and went uncommitted to a narrowly defined task.
I don’t know what causes loneliness, but I do know that its much easier to not feel lonely when you are spending fully committed time, and not arbitraged fractions, communicating with another human being. If you’re under the age of 40, its almost socially illegal to voice call a friend to talk. For many it would be viewed as an act of emotional aggression, an imposition of social need, if not anxiety, on another. The irony of this millennial norm I’ve unfairly placed on them through nothing but my own unreliable observations is that it strikes me as an accelerated path to friendless boomer sad-dad suburban isolation.
The pandemic hit and many of us had to start Zooming in to work. And we had to explain Zoom and Google Meetings to our parents so we could talk to them. But I think a lot of us started catching up with old school buddies, too. Folks you sent Christmas cards to or caught up with at a cookout the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It became completely normal to schedule a call in advance – to put it on a calendar and reserve that time. And I think a lot of people who moved for work or relationships, who after 10 years changed to a new office where they didn’t know anyone, who maybe had simply fallen out of step with friends after the first four years of trying to keep triplets fed — I think a lot of people really enjoyed the pandemic-driven need for reserving time for contiguous social interaction in a manner entirely unconstrained by geography. And maybe they ended up feeling less lonely for it.
Keep Zooming your friends far away. Keep putting it on the calendar. Do it forever.