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Technology, work or time: Why are we so lonely?

FILE, 2022: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) assures students he is fighting for them during a roundtable discussion with Alfred E. Burr Middle Schoolers on youth mental health and ways to improve support services in schools, Hartford, Connecticut.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
FILE, 2022: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) assures students he is fighting for them during a roundtable discussion with Alfred E. Burr Middle Schoolers on youth mental health and ways to improve support services in schools, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sen. Chris Murphy has recently become vocal about what he calls an “epidemic of loneliness” in America. Murphy addressed the issue before the U.S. Senate last month and most recently on Wednesday’s episode of Connecticut Public Radio’s The Colin McEnroe Show.

Murphy discussed the possible causes of America’s increasing loneliness. According to him, far fewer Americans have more than three friends today than in the 1990s. Murphy attributes part of that to the modern reliance on technology for communication.

“We are learning that that virtual connection, even when it's surrounding a positive mutual interest, is oftentimes not as fulfilling and rewarding – it doesn't stimulate the kind of activity in your brain that in person connection does,” Murphy said. “It's true [that] you actually have more opportunity to connect with people or find passions that you care about online. When that happens through a computer screen or through a phone, I just don't know that it ends up being as fulfilling.”

Elisa Baek, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, said the way people think can also be impacted by loneliness. Baek pointed to a recent study conducted by USC Dornsife. The study monitored the brain activity of self-described “lonely” and not lonely individuals as they were shown different film and TV scenes.

“What we found was that the lonely individuals, compared to their peers are very dissimilar from the group's average brain activity and in how other people’s brains responded to these different scenes,” Baek said. “We also found this Anna Karenina effect in that lonely individuals' brain responses were all different from the group's average weight in their own idiosyncratic way.”

Baek explains in her research that the Anna Karenina effect means that lonely people do not experience life in a “universally relatable way.”

“We say that we've found that non lonely individuals are all alike in their neuro-responding, but every lonely individual seemed to process the world in their own way,” Baek said.

According to connection coach Kat Vellos, adults lose on average one to two friends every year. The hypermobility of certain areas in the country is one aspect Vellos described as responsible for the erosion of adult friendships.

“It's typically not because of a falling out or friendship ending in a dramatic fashion. They really just fade away through lack of maintenance, lack of care and attention,” Vellos said. “Or, you may care but just may not feel like you have the time or attention to focus on those friendships and keep them going. It might be your friends or company moving away, so that [creates] difficulty with maintaining them.”

Lack of free time is an important factor contributing to increasing loneliness, according to Vellos and Murphy. With work and personal life colliding through remote office spaces and rising food and housing costs forcing some to work longer hours, Americans’ leisure time has steadily decreased since the mid-1980s.

“One of the biggest challenges people came up with in my research [that] was getting in the way of them making [and] maintaining their friends, was that they felt so busy all the time,” Vellos said. “They felt like their life was so full – they just didn't have time to fit friendship into their life.”

Looking to the future, Murphy advocated for a shorter work week to combat loneliness.

“I think a policy around reducing the number of hours that people have to work a week in order to live life, allowing people to work a 40-hour work week and have it pay enough so that you can spend your evenings and weekends in leisure activities is part of what helps combat loneliness,” Murphy said.

Listen to the full episode of The Colin McEnroe Show: What's going on with loneliness?

Kelsey Goldbach is a Digital Media Intern with Connecticut Public.

She is a fourth year student pursuing an undergraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Southern California. Recently, Kelsey was a part of the Dow Jones News Fund Digital Intern Class of 2023. She is a Connecticut native and spends her summers in Waterbury.

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