We are social animals
As a biologist, I never thought I would study social behavior, or how it evolved. However, it turned out to be such a fascinating topic that I pursued it both in my undergraduate and master's thesis. By studying dolphin social behavior, I realized there are many similarities to us in society’s formations and behavior. Not surprising, since those animals are also big-brained and smart.
It really baffles me that being connected and developing meaningful relationships are not usually seen as a priority for most people. This is a critical aspect of our species. We have always been social. Our social bonds have literally meant survival for thousands of years. To the point that when we lose our personal connections, we feel the pain caused by a specific part of our brains. That pain forces us to recover those bonds, which were critical for security, mating, and finding or hunting food.
Studying primates' sociality and some primal human groups Dunbar discovered that the highest amount of people we can continue to keep bonds with at the same time is 150. That means being in contact and knowing what is happening in their lives. However, this 150-person group breaks down into smaller groups. You will really rely upon and tell most things to around 5 people. 15 people are close friends and relatives. 50 people you have daily or spurious contacts with, but they are not close (a.k.a. people you would call for a party). And finally, 100-150 are all the other meaningful connections you can have. You can definitely recognize them facially and know around 1500 people.
Although this is an extrapolation and it can vary a lot between introverts and extroverts and between cultures, that tells us a lot. This is especially important if you want to know why you might feel lonely. Here are some thinking points.
1- Globalisation has many advantages, but it also means people have never been especially mobile. Maybe all the 5 people you count on the most are not even in the same city, state, or country as you. This may continue for a long time.
2- Social media makes us feel connected to everyone. But we are not. This false sensation of connection makes us less inclined to really connect. Also, if you like me have 600+ friends on Facebook or Instagram, you are well over Dunbar's 150. This means you are not really that invested in the remaining 450+.
3- Everyone I know is feeling exhausted. We work and we work. We then worry about work. We then worry when compared to everything that everyone on social media and gets even more disconnected. We don't really find the time or the will to improve and maintain good social connections or have it high on our list of priorities.
4- Our cities. There’s been a boom in homeownership over the last century, and the size of houses is also getting broader. At the same time, more and more people report feeling lonely. You live isolated, have no idea who are your neighbors, drive your car alone to work and back for several minutes to hours, take off to sleep, wake up, and do it again.
5- Our societies. We have fewer clubs, church affiliations, and other gathering groups that make us assemble and have a sense of community. Also, these matters are given less importance. Society's focus is on productivity and not on the idea of one being part of a book club or meeting every week to play cards with friends.
But, many behavioral and psychology studies on happiness point in the same direction: healthy relationships are a very big indicator and contributor to happiness and success. That includes the longest happiness study ever conducted. So, we are feeling lonely and more depressed than ever, and maybe we are not even looking at the right solutions. Because, well, how will pharmaceutical companies profit if the solution is just having more friends?
But acknowledging the problem is already a positive start to solving it. It is not only an individual quest to get and maintain healthy relationships. It is also something we should make our policymakers aware of and should be a key item on their agenda. Personal changes, changes in society, technology, and even urbanism should be done to solve this “loneliness epidemic”. Productivity, success, and money will only go so far if we don’t fulfill this evolutionary need. As Alexander Supertramp wrote before dying: Happiness is only real, when shared.
Here is a short video that summarizes most of what I wrote: