The Cause Behind The Mental Health Crisis? Try Loneliness

Diagnoses of depression and anxiety are disturbingly high and it is not merely due to more precise diagnosis: it occurs internationally, even in cultures as different as China. The causes are multiple but social media and technology are blatantly involved: loneliness makes us depressive, anxious and more likely to die than smoking or obesity or no exercise. Social support is everything; social isolation regularly precedes suicide. Social media and its associated technology would not appear to cause but when it subtracts from our social support it does cause and can, well, possibly kill you. Technology intersects with rational self-interest and individualisim – and we pay a heavy price for that. Newly individuating societies report lower wellbeing and higher suicide rates; our capacity raising machines have become instruments of it.

Look at the state of things: hours of mediated technology subtracted from actual socialising. Fragmented attentions across devices, media, locations and people that overstretches our natural capacity and results in us feeling bad, and if prolonged feeling anxious and depressed, too often that we cannot cope.

In northern cultures there is a public taboo of feelings, touching, and affection that is exacerbated by staying in touch without touch; meaning we are touch starved. The majority of communication and its neurochemical reward is non-verbal, but our online selves are a substitute covering, even sabotaging, the real person. We forget that we have quality dialogue with each other to better the dialogue we have with our selves.

The comepetitve nature and envy parading social media reflect how ethics are secondary to business success. Businesses whether Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, take advantage of your brain to simulate a less satisfying reward that is addictive, like notifications that release dopamine. You get notifications irrelevant or frivolous to you because they entice you back in, not for your sake but theirs. ‘Brain hacking’ is a real thing, since it is not in the self-interest of companies to stress authentic needs so long as artificial desires are more profitable.

The fetishing of celebrity comes from individuals that want to be successful by a definition of success that is implausible, distorted and frankly ridiculous — notions spread by social media. Strangely, love and friendship are allocated after success rather than as success itself; and intuitively we know this, which is why so many successes feel more stressed, anxious, and lonely than ‘failures’. Research lead by psychologist Martin Seligman has shown what we call ‘burnout’ is actually triggered depression. These issues arise from individualism and rational-self interest, the gods of our era, that ignore that even our individual brains are socially wired, and humans are certainly not rational or gifted enough to know and get what is best for them without objectivity – objectivity that has shown what matters is close relationships. Yet the societal bar sets high expectations paraded by media loving celebrity outliers and inevitably envious comparisons among the largest group of financially and romantically competing ‘connected’ humans ever. Now, with a vast majority of middle classes the implausible goal is for everyone to be upper.

Research has shown sociability, the size of a friend circle, can predict health and life expectancy, and that the generous (other oriented in psychologist) tend to live longer. That the more people in your social circle, the larger your brain’s amygdala – important to emotional intelligence – will likely be. Research run by Michigan University neuroscientist, Oscar Ybarra evinces amygdala growth and brain changes through socialising.

Sense of belonging and being loved make life worth living but the intimacy of our connections rather than being connected by technology – are also interfered with by them. The number of conversations an American family has, has declined 100% from 1980 to 1997. Yes, that large a drop: 2% of the time in the week to mere 1%. In the John Sandberg and Sandra Hofferth population analysis TV went from 30% to 21%, losing place to other leisures.

Attention is divided because of interference and competition from screens, phones, compulsory music that creates a constant feed of infotainment that is so regular and banal it is mistaken as natural as water is to a fish. When actually more like fish tank water, possibly stagnating, obscure, harmful and artificial. Public intellectuals like Susan Jacoby have long lamented that technology, when it becomes compulsory, is not the tool–we are.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo of Chicago University evidences that organising meeting-up through Facebook increases well being; just speaking on Facebook increases loneliness.

Facebook ‘Friends’ is messing with language: it’s mostly, acquaintances. Dunbar’s number has proven the maximum that the outlier most sociable person can have is 150 actual friends. A network; not a friendship group. Research by scientists like Goncalves, Pera & Vespignani have confirmed Dunbar’s anthropological number is true of user interaction online too, on Twitter.

Social support keeps people going because it gives them a ‘steady stream’ of serotonin and oxytocin. The reason so many more men, than women, commit suicide is probably because of loneliness; fewer active social supporters and the taboo of men with emotions as not real men, uglier, needy. That means they have disrespect for and often hate themselves–which often corresponds to lower serotonin, lower oxytocin. Not surprisingly, the inefficient reuptake of serotonin is the main theory for the cause of depression; and often is not just neurological but neuro-social. Afterall, drug medicine only treats the effects – that is, does not cure – the cases of environmentally triggered depression.

Even our selves are socially contingent and given our parochial evolutionary history the ‘surprising’ reported happiness of countries that are less well off in the United Nations Happiness Index, could be because their communities are tighter and their view of love, friendship and touch healthier. Maybe not the False Consciousness – a kind of ignorance-Is-Bliss delusion – some economists claim, at all. Perhaps we have the false consciousness of ‘individual’ love and ‘individual’ friendship and they have the right thinking.

The taboo of touch in some countries (like USA, Japan, Northern Europe) also reduces the amount of oxytocin those people can experience. Hugging for 30+ seconds releases good-feeling oxytocin; even touches of any kind can boost oxytocin a little. Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky — as written in The How of Happiness — has proven that people given 5 hugs a day are much happier than a control group. Children and baby monkeys are damaged and even die if they are not cuddled; and research confirms how–lack of hormone mechanism. Distant, toxic, stressful relationships can predict earlier death, as can loneliness because of stress hormones; stress that is meant to trigger solutions to regaining beneficial hormones that reduce stress. Even patting a dog or cat releases hormones. It really is all about love. All kinds.

It is the ecstatic release of oxytocin, among other hormones, that makes kissing, sex and orgasm so pursued and rewarding. But those are not as consistent nor as reliable as friendliness, innocuous hand holding or hugging. A cultural taboo particularly among men — more acceptable between men in Saudi Arabia and Iran than Britain or America. Of course, trusted touching is what is beneficial but trust is altered by cultural taboo and convention, at odds with scientific findings.

So, why the increased rates of anxiety and depression? The causes are multiple and better diagnosed of course but some causes are blatant to conclude; that just because they, whether screens or customs, are familiar are not by default good — the evidence stresses, very bad.

At 2 billion members Facebook is connecting a world that has not found out – actually tested – if being connected will be better than not. It is not for the better until the numbers of anxious and depressed go down in proportion to the numbers of for-profit Facebook go up.

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