And what it says about our culture

We live in a world that is increasingly connected.

About three-quarters of American adults own a smartphone, which affords us access to one another with a single swipe or tap. FaceTime, text messaging, email, Instagram, Facebook Live, and a host of other apps mean that geographical distance no longer bars us from interacting with each other. We can regularly Skype or FaceTime our friends who live on other continents or “visit with” our elderly grandparents out of state. We can keep up with our college friends on Instagram and tune into work calls via Google Hangouts.

But despite all this connectedness, few can deny an ever-growing trend: we are, nonetheless, eerily disconnected.

On the one hand, there is the data, which shows that as a society we are lonelier than ever. In a recent study by Cigna, nearly half of the 20,000 respondents surveyed reported “sometimes or always feeling alone.” Twenty percent reported that they “rarely or never feel close to people.” And contrary to what one might guess, the loneliest group of people is not the elderly (though they score high): in both the Cigna study and in another conducted by BBC, young adults (defined as 18–22 and 16–24, respectively) topped the charts.

Then, there is the growing consensus that ours is an “Age of Loneliness.” “We are entering a post-social condition our ancestors would have believed impossible,” writes George Monbiot for The Guardian. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, like many others, describes it in epidemic proportions: “I talk about this as an epidemic because it’s far more widespread than people believe,” he told the Washington Post, “and like many illnesses that are related to our mental and psychological state, it gets swept under the rug and exists in the shadows.” And as Stephen Marche writes for The Atlantic, “Within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation.”

But on the other hand, we don’t need the science or the thought leadership in order to see the societal symptoms of loneliness: throughout history, art has been deemed a reflection of the culture that produced it. Challenges that afflict a culture surface in media, from music to film to theater. Today, tuning to our Top 40 hits shows us just how lonely and disconnected we are both as a culture and as individuals.

Pervasive loneliness is a theme that underlies chart-topping hits this past year—but it is different from what we think of when we consider the general state of being “lonely.” The theme isn’t just being alone, but rather, being surrounded by people, but nonetheless feeling isolated.

Take, for instance, OneRepublic’s new radio hit, “Connection.” The song will make you want to crank up the volume and roll your windows down, but despite its bouncy chorus, its core message is a plea: a plea for connection.

“Can I get a connection?” the band’s songwriter and frontman, Ryan Tedder, warbles in the chorus.“Can I get, can I get a connection?”

The song is about an individual—ostensibly Tedder himself—who feels “lost in the ocean,” having lost sight of his purpose, his people, and his place as he embarks on a journey to reconnect with his loved ones. He sings:

These days my waves get lost in the oceans

Seven billion swimmers, man I’m going through the motions

Sent up a flare, I need love and devotion

Traded for some faces that I never know, notion

Maybe I should try to find the old me

Take me to the places and the people that know me

Tryna just connect, thinking maybe you could show me

If there’s so many people here, why I am so lonely?

The song’s first few stanzas articulate what so many young people feel: the phenomenon of being flooded with people and faces, but still feeling desperately lonely.

Recently I spoke with a friend who said she felt deeply disconnected in college, despite being constantly overwhelmed with the company and the presence of others. Although she had never before been so surrounded, swamped even, with faces and bodies, she had never felt so devoid of true and authentic relationships. What was missing was that genuine “connection” for which Tedder begs. The song goes on:

Real friends, good friends,

Hard to find, let’s face it.

[...]

I’m just tryna paint the picture for me

Something I could give a damn about in maybe 40 years

And I’ll be ready and willing to edit the story

Cause there’s so many people here to be so damn lonely.

What are we doing with our lives if not forging meaningful relationships with others? If we are truly walking through life without working toward anything we can “give a damn about,” then what is our purpose? And if we are constantly surrounded by people, why, just why, are we “so damn lonely”?

When Tedder pleads, “Take me to the places and the people that know me,” perhaps he hits the proverbial nail on the head: despite being connected to one another constantly, our connections are shallow. And while social media and instant connection via our phones and apps have their place, are they really fostering authentic connection, helping us to truly, honestly know one another? The message underlying “Connection” suggests the answer to this question is a resounding no.

The late artist Avicii explores a similar theme in his posthumous hit, “Lonely Together,” an anthem for isolated youth. Avicii’s untimely death by suicide this past year gives the song an especially tragic tenor.

The song’s music video depicts a series of people dancing, swirling around and about one another, but not interacting. In fact, many of them are frozen in time—their faces and bodies unaffected by those who are moving around them. The picture the video and the song paints is similar to the underlying theme in “Connection”: the phenomenon of being surrounded yet lonely.

It’s you and your world and I’m caught in the middle

I caught the edge of a knife and it hurts just a little

And I know, and I know, and I know, and I know

That I can’t be your friend.

Right out of the gates, the song paints a picture of a connection lost: of someone being “caught in the middle” rather than capable of authentically encountering another. The chorus continues this theme, one that depicts people who are essentially resigned to embrace the underwhelming status quo:

I might hate myself tomorrow, but I’m on my way tonight

At the bottom of a bottle, you’re the poison in my wine

And I know I can’t change you and I won’t change

I might hate myself tomorrow, but I’m on my way tonight

Let’s be lonely together.

Unlike “Connection,” “Lonely Together” is not a supplication—it is a resignation letter. The song’s main protagonist isn’t even seeking that connection for which Tedder begged but rather, accepts that things simply “won’t change.” The song’s female vocalist is resigned not to connect with the Other in the song, but rather, to accept being “lonely together.”

American indie pop group lovelytheband continues this theme in its new radio hit, “broken,” in which the lead singer professes to his love interest:

I like that you’re broken, broken like me

Maybe that makes me a fool

I like that you're lonely, lonely like me

I could be lonely with you.

The song is about a romantic affair that sparks between two attendees at an affluent young New Yorker’s apartment party. But the song manages to make the affair seem off-putting rather than intriguing. In one of the first stanzas, the lead singer cries:

Life is not a love song that we like

We’re all broken pieces floating by.

The song depicts love and romantic relationships not as opportunities for healing, but rather, as a way to coexist with other broken, lonely people. Once again, the theme of being surrounded, but not seen, resonates. The music video further emphasizes this theme by featuring people surrounded by others at a party, swept up in crowds and noise, but without any meaningful interaction—any connection.

These songs are simply a representative trio, but all reveal pathological loneliness in our culture: one that accepts brokenness, resigns itself to tread a lonely path parallel to that of other travelers, and which starves for authentic connection beyond the pixels on a screen. They belie a craving for real, flesh-and-blood connection, face-to-face encounter, authenticity, vulnerability, and paths that converge over common interests, joys, and pain points. But what we get is not that, but a vague, amorphous cloud of lonely people passing in the night like ships.

This all begs the question: Why? Why, in an age where we are more connected to each other than ever, is this the music our culture produces? When we are simply a tap or swipe away from our loved ones, and when we have the capacity to make ourselves seen and known to hundreds or even thousands via our social media platforms, why are we “so damn lonely”?

Ironically, the answer is that our connectedness only feeds our disconnectedness.

Surrounding ourselves with shallow connections constantly leaves us lonely, because it crowds out the possibility of authentic connection.

We don’t have to seek someone out face-to-face if we can simply double-tap their Instagram photos. We don’t have to book a flight to see Grandma if we can just Skype her in between our other obligations. We don’t have to cultivate a flesh-and-blood community, because we have our online community. And at the end of the day, sometimes, because we are so flooded with constant connection and noise and interaction, it feels like too much work to forge authentic connections. We just want to disconnect from it all.

How, then, do we fix this? Is it to go back to the “places and the people” that know us? How do we go about finding a purpose that we can “give a damn about in maybe 40 years”?

The answer, at the end of the day, is to cast aside the thousands of shallow quasi-connections that distract us from lasting connection. Whether this means putting aside Instagram to schedule coffee with a friend, booking a flight instead of tapping the Facetime icon, or showing up to the meeting instead of dialing in, what we need is, as Shauna Niequist writes in her bestselling memoir Present over Perfect, to “just connect.”

Just connect.

Though simple, implementing this message will so profoundly impact our lives, our happiness, and our contribution to the world. Instead of losing ourselves in a sea of convenient, quick, superficial conversations, we can commit to long-term, lasting, authentic relationships. Instead of sharing ourselves with hundreds or thousands of people online, we can open up—truly open up—to just a few in our real, day-to-day lives. And instead of swirling through a sea of bodies without seeing or knowing anyone, we can stop, listen, and let others know that we see—truly see—them: that they are known, valued, and treasured for more than just the persona that they project to the world through social media platforms.

Because true connection, authentic relationships, and the lasting support of living, breathing people—that is something we can give a damn about.