Loneliness in modern society

By Chen Zhiwei, Zhou Ning / 11-13-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Existential Psychotherapy

Loneliness is one of the most profound human experiences. Awareness of loneliness can cause intense existential anxiety. The pressure of modern life continuously drives people into situations where they are made aware of their loneliness.

Loneliness of modern times

In modern society marked by acceleration, people experience psychological, interpersonal, and existential loneliness. Firstly, individuals have to functionalize themselves and participate in the social division of labor in order to survive. They rush into decisions under pressure and suppress their true desires.

With technological acceleration, people become accustomed to measuring distance in terms of time spent on transportation rather than actual miles. Space no longer bears a part of the self. As production accelerates, objects no longer assume a part of the self, either. People do not have the time and patience to familiarize themselves with their belongings. They cannot find a sign to represent themselves despite the existence of surplus product. As a result, they become increasingly obsessed with consumption and eventually lose the sense of self.

Secondly, the extensive application of information and communication technology is sometimes accompanied by the phenomenon of being “alone together.” Reliance on online communication sometimes results in the lack of motivation and topics for offline communication. On the other hand, the tremendous mobility of modern society has deprived individuals of the time and energy to truly get to know each other. People part ways in haste just the way they meet, and their bond dissipates before even being formed. Interpersonal relations become instrumentalized and superficial, and the sense of alienation becomes gradually apparent.

Thirdly, existential loneliness as a reality and the awareness of this reality naturally emerge when individuals are alienated from each other. While being independent of the presence of others, existential loneliness is more palpable in their absence. It further manifests itself through death and freedom. Death is the loneliest human experience. Faced with imminent death, people instinctively seek any support, but care in a general sense is of no help. Individuals must secure a place for themselves, and by themselves, under the pressure of social acceleration, with “de-familiarization” being the cost of freedom.

Alleviating loneliness

Although loneliness is a reality that cannot be avoided or eliminated, humans can never exist in isolation. The only way to alleviate the anxiety of loneliness is to establish relationships. When people harness their creativity and connect with the world through labor, they feel their own value in human-object relationships. More importantly, though, is the connection between individuals. Linked by a shared loneliness, only humans can empathize with each other. The uncertainty of others’ responses enables the understanding of the equal status and freedom of each person. It also teaches people how to “connect” while also “separating.”

Effective interpersonal connections serve as a wonderful remedy for the anxiety of loneliness. Good relationships are characterized by equal communication between individuals who demand nothing from one another, whereas demanding relationships involve the exploitation of the object by the subject. If one collapses in loneliness, they either become a part of someone else or use others as tools. It is even more difficult to understand loneliness in such unequal relationships.

The establishment of relationships is also an active process of giving, in which love for others is based on understanding, care, and respect. This creative power can only be unleashed through self-actualization. Self-actualizers themselves constitute a driving force without being overly dependent on others. This suggests that good relationships can only be built upon inner wholeness and comfort with solitude.

Chen Zhiwei and Zhou Ning (professor) are from the Faculty of Education at Yunnan Normal University.