A new book, The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz, poses an interesting challenge to the ‘biological taint’ theory by suggesting that loneliness is both responsible for a huge amount of the emotional suffering that attracts psychiatric diagnoses, and that its prevalence is a consequence of recent historical trends: family breakdown, the rise in both domestic and international migration, the disintegration of civil society, and our increasing dependence on the internet, particularly social media. We are social animals, and loneliness makes us very, very sick. While the elderly are particularly vulnerable to it, the young are also suffering terribly. Those ‘snowflake’ young people on Twitter are telling the truth when they write about their profound unhappiness. It’s just that they’re using these feelings as evidence of their special, oppressed status, rather than seeing themselves as part of a lonely generation in need of better company.
Perhaps the reluctance to face up to this peculiar sadness induced by 21st-century living is because the most reliable remedies to loneliness are disturbingly traditionalist: get married, have kids, live near your extended family, go to a weekly religious service.
In the archives of my mind, there is a steel door, flanked by guard dogs and behemoth security guards, under 24/7 video surveillance, requiring a retinal scan for entry. Inside, there is a heavy-duty safe. Inside that safe, there is a folder stamped, “Confidential: Not for Public Release.” Inside that folder, there is a heavily-redacted report stating my opinion that much of the “discourse” surrounding depression, anxiety and mental health in our time is performative, status-oriented, and socially contagious. A trend, in other words, one likely to appear as outdated several decades hence as Freudian claptrap does now. A trend that tell us more about our time in general than about any of its individual practitioners. As she says, that doesn’t mean the suffering is fake. It’s just an inarticulate way of describing the phenomenon. We dropped our keys a few blocks away in our former social arrangements, but we’re looking for them under the streetlamp of neuroscience and pharmacotherapy because the light’s better there.