Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bisou endorses this post

The latest study about how loneliness will kill you has conveniently made headlines just as I'm on some serious deadlines, and my husband's spending a couple weeks away at conferences, and I'm living in the woods, the kind of hyper-busy demanded of those my age in the year 2013, but without a heck of a lot of face-to-face human interaction. Am I lonely? I don't think so - I have friends and family I'm close with, even if they're not any of them in the woods with me at the moment, unless you count a poodle, which, why not? And I'm enough of an introvert that the woods-jogs and gosh-darn-getting-work-done marathons this permits are fine by me. But if I were going out tonight, rather than staying in with the no-sleep-till-Introduction-is-polished goal, I think I'd be OK with that. Of course, if Hulu had Season 4 of "The Bob Newhart Show" (no television, but out of cheapness, not principles) and I could knock back a couple of those rather than finishing this task, I'd be OK with that as well.

Still, it's like, uh oh, what if I'm actually basically neglecting my health by not getting out more? What if I find myself talking to said poodle, things other than dog-commands and cooing? (What if I asked my dog to read my dissertation and make edits? If only.)

But left with all this thinking-time (one cannot, after all, dissertate while poodle-walking), I got to thinking: maybe part of what we're calling "loneliness" comes from a very modern sense that everyone else is socializing more than we are? Not just among woods-dissertators - we have our own particular concerns, which we are sharing with our poodles as necessary - but also among urban office-workers with happy-hours and the like? (Yes, office-workers, we the dissertators believe that the grass is greener.)

First there were the 1990s sitcoms, which gave the impression that adulthood means forming a tight-knit group of friends, who are like family, without anyone ever drifting in or out of the group. If you were someone who - because of temperament or geographical constraints - has close friends who are not all also close friends with one another, or if you're someone closer with your similar-age family (siblings, spouse, cousins, etc.) than your friends you see at the coffee shop (although there were siblings on "Friends," I recall), you may have felt that your life didn't match up.

Then, of course, came Facebook. The thing not only reminds you of all the people hanging out without you, people you would not even remember existed if it weren't for the site. It also presents this distorted overview of how people spend their time. Evenings out are documented. Evenings in are not. Introverted adults who are frankly relieved that they're no longer expected to be at bars or parties several nights a week all of a sudden find themselves wondering if perhaps this is expected. The age-old question the young ask themselves - 'Am I a loser for staying in on a Saturday night?' - is now something those who are 45 and married with kids may find themselves wondering.

And I'm leaving out the obvious: adults are now expected to have hundreds if not thousands of "friends." Even though I think we all understand that no one has five hundred confidants, the list-of-friends phenomenon invites us to quantify our social lives as never before. It poses a question. Well, different questions, depending one's circumstances, depending one's neuroses. The question might be something like, 'why is it if I have over a thousand friends, only fifteen of them wrote on my wall for my birthday?' Or: 'why, if I have two hundred friends, do I not have plans for this weekend?' Or: 'why does X have twice as many friends as I do?'

Point being, you're left with a sense of what a typical social life is like that probably doesn't bear much relation to what others are actually up to, and with an impression that social life can be quantified, that you can numerically fall short. Again, it could be just something I'm imagining, from the vantage point of an especially woods-hermit-ish week. But I wonder if "loneliness," which is apparently distinct from solitude or not having a large group of friends, can actually increase in proportion to our perceptions of how numerous and fulfilling the social lives of others must be.


Nicholas said...

Anecdata: on the one hand, I agree with the general point here. On the other, 1. I'm pretty sure my feed has at least as many people bragging over their nights in as their nights out, probably more (a feature, no doubt, of how much long-term relationships and families are ostensibly valued amongst my fb friends), and 2. this may just be narcissism, but I assume people with many times the friends that I have are much more promiscuous in their friending, and thus not really points of comparison. I might otherwise be tempted to attribute both of these to my age, but I don't think that's a relevant difference, though the midwestern origins or destinations of most of my friend list might be more of an explanation.

Phoebe said...

I think Facebook has a way of highlighting our insecurities, whatever they may be. I'm not, as this post indicates, getting out much. While this has tons to do with circumstances (such as dissertation-lockdown-mode, such as living in the woods), I've never been the world's most outgoing person, so it will be the out-and-about posts that make me question my own evening spent finally getting the dissertation introduction into print-and-read-it-over-and-send-it-out shape. Finally.

But I met my now-husband at 23 and am now 29, so boasting about relationship status, unless it's really egregious, like people who get married and then post that it's your two-week anniversary, then three-week, or something like that, and no, that specific thing never happened but things like it... unless it's extreme, it isn't jumping out at me. I'm not going to perceive 'I'm married and I live in the suburbs' as bragging. Nor will I read 'I went to UChicago' as bragging, whereas 'I went to Harvard,' well, depends how it's phrased.

Because it isn't just relationship (friendship or romantic) anxiety. A fellow grad student once posted a (very amusing) rant about how they didn't want to hear about everyone else's fancy jobs/vacations, not while prepping for exams, at least. It can be any possible grass-is-greener anxiety, because we're just so aware of what else is out there, as well as always getting a best-aspects-only view of it.

Flavia said...

My anecdata match Nicholas's: lots of people on my feed talk about the Netflix they're watching, the yummy dinners they're making, the adorable things their children did (often with video footage!), or the household projects they're getting done or not getting done.

And some of this, sure, involves the same species of bragging that goes on in posts documenting nights out--but plenty of it doesn't: people talk about the mysterious way it takes three weeks to reorganize the closets, about their failures and embarrassments in parenting or in home repair, or whatever. My impression is that there are a lot of relatively social introverts (or people otherwise stuck at home because of kids, etc.) who share the minutiae of their lives partly to be part of a minutiae-sharing community; they don't see their friends as much as they'd like, and this is their way of chatting with them and staying in touch.

Phoebe said...


Reading your comment, I'm realizing that a good number of my (slightly older than I am, generally) friends do post along these lines. Minutae, not bragging. Or: it may read as bragging to those who desperately want a kid, but to me, at this point in my life, not so much. With the baby photos, either the baby is particularly cute and I look, squeal, move on, or it's just part of the blur of Facebook and it doesn't move me either way.

I don't think there's an equivalent, though, with going-out posts. Often something is actually being celebrated, so people will look... celebratory. But even if not, people are dressed up, giving the impression of having a good time. The nights-in posts may inspire annoyance in that they can be smug, or envy in that they can hit upon life-milestone anxieties. Whereas people out having a good time, that kind of always looks appealing, I think, even to those who intellectually recognize that most of the time, they'd rather stay in.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and another possibility: if "loneliness" is (as it apparently is) defined as a lack of intimacy, it almost doesn't matter whether Facebook is presenting the best-of version of nights out or nights in, assuming they're not nights in entirely alone. Whatever relationships we see on Facebook - friends or family - are going to be shown in their best light. The quality of other people's relationships will, from that perspective, often end up looking enviable, even when we all know intellectually that people are putting their best feet forward, that people will talk about being in crummy relationships/life situations and then take to Facebook to say how great everything is, etc.

Petey said...

Didn't we all reach consensus several years ago that Facebook was detrimental to mental health?

Phoebe said...

We did? But it serves positive functions as well - staying in touch with people you want to stay in touch with, casually checking in with people who live far away, inviting and getting invited to events. Also: spirited debates about articles. We all need to come to our own conclusions, weighing that against whichever neuroses it may inspire (and whichever concerns re: privacy, re: our information being sold).

Petey said...

"Of course, if Hulu had Season 4 of "The Bob Newhart Show" (no television, but out of cheapness, not principles) and I could knock back a couple of those rather than finishing this task"

Given the state of play in IP infringement actions, I think you're immensely close to 100% safe in pirating BBC subtitled broadcast torrents of Denmark teevee like Borgen.

Like I say, good, clean, middle-brow, gender-equality fun...