Are We Bound to Feel Lonely in the Globalized World?

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As social animals we have survived because we used to form bonds and be members of tribes. Several interesting studies show that we are wired to be social on such a deep level that social isolation is actually processed similarly to physical pain by our mind. Plenty of research shows that loneliness is bad for our health and well-being, indeed, loneliness seems to be as big of a risk for mortality as other well-established conditions (e.g. obesity; heavy smoking).

Given such evidence, the notion of humans ‘being social animals’ seems to be as relevant as before. Yet, doesn’t our modern lifestyle pretend otherwise? What is the impact of globalization? Isn’t global mobility and constant uprooting contradicting our human need to create bonds and belong?

Echoing the fairly common notion of loneliness being a modern-day epidemic, I believe that in a certain way it indeed does. In the developed countries, modern workplaces celebrate mobility: international experience is valued, ‘are you willing to relocate’ has become a typical job interview question, global mindset is highly sought after, and multiculturalism is something that management teams strive for. As such, we are experiencing more relocations, where we travel to other people and others travel to us, and we end up having a greater variety of contacts with different people, yet less (and maybe less intense) contact with the familiar ones. Moreover, the way we work also changes. Telecommuting with distant colleagues replaces face-to-face coffee time with long-term office desk-neighbors, and we might generally see our colleagues less, because work arrangements are increasingly flexible and many can work from home. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of telecommuting is that it produces a feeling of isolation. And expatriation has been linked to the same notion.

Globalization, in its romanticized view, is also about borderless opportunities. As discussed in one of my previous posts, a mobile lifestyle can become an addiction, when one constantly strives for new experiences and opportunities. Such striving implies freedom, and freedom implies minimal attachments and stability. Isn’t such a lifestyle ‘from hub to hub, with nothing, with nobody?’—the way it is described in the ‘Up in the Air’ movie—the very essence of isolation and loneliness?

As such, yes, the modern lifestyle with its globalization trends seems to move away from our tribal traditions of putting down roots towards more of an uprooting philosophy. On our birthday we are much more likely nowadays to receive several cross-border calls and messages from our loved ones, than manage to get all of them around the birthday dinner table. Yet, this fact does not necessarily mean we should feel lonely. Contrary to this myth, loneliness is not about being alone, it is rather about not feeling close to anyone. As Kira Asatryan, a relationship coach and author of ‘Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships’, puts it we feel lonely when we crave for feeling of being understood and valued, hence being close to someone. Kira explains that essential qualities of closeness are ‘knowing’ (understanding the person from his or her own perspective/being understood this way) and ‘caring’ (communicating that the other matters to you/is being cared for). Hence, it is not about the quantity of people around you, but rather about the quality of the little relationships you might have. As such, as long as we manage to keep a few important relationships to provide the necessary ‘closeness’, we should be fine even with frequent relocations, a lack of office desk-neighbors and skype-based birthday parties. After all, there are quite a few benefits to global mobility that are worth the effort.

7 thoughts on “Are We Bound to Feel Lonely in the Globalized World?

  1. “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”

    If that kind of freedom makes relocating appealing to people who already have a problem with creating and maintaining relationships, those that don’t mind moving away from the friends they don’t have, the implicit consequence is that other peoples are mainly exposed to a subset of foreign mankind. That wouldn’t bode well for international relations.

    So perhaps we should be thankful if expats feel this sting. It means that they care about other people – including those that they miss.

  2. I remember my first overseas job and the experience of having no history. It was both liberating and scary to realize that I could have been anybody before and anyone different from that moment! That was in 1986. Many transitions later, I have realized that for me, it’s not about rooting and uprooting, which can be really painful and slow and difficult to grow again; dropping anchor is a better metaphor. There is some conscious agency implied and some acceptance of mobility as the way of chosen life.

    I completely concur with the comments about the quality of the relationships being what matters. For those of us who have lived globally, we know that we have deep connections with many, often very quickly, that transcend culture, geography and passport (plus many others).

    That is the result of possessing the INTENT to connect, not just hopefully or if things “happen”. The intent puts me in a place of really seeing and hearing another, reducing distance, thus creating what I call Global Resonance.

  3. Loneliness is stressful. The point about creating and maintaining new relationships is that, when we have a new friend, all those defences we keep in place can be gloriously allowed to fall. Huge sigh of relief. I remember when I first worked in Tokyo and a couple of clients turned into friends (whom I retain 30 years later) I for the first time felt a little bit rooted (or anchored, Kathleen!). Good feeling.

  4. It’s good to become alone sometimes. However, it’s harmful in long term. According to a study conducted Harvard, the relationship is the top factor in determining the happiness and quality of life. There is also ted talk on research.

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