Does isolation help or hinder productivity? What about loneliness?
Isolation, loneliness, and productivity
This episode was born out of conversations I’ve had recently. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I was trading messages with a colleague about how she was feeling lonely and about the isolation of working at home, and how it sometimes makes it hard to focus on work that needs to get done.
Isolation and loneliness are common consequences of working remotely, but it’s possible to be lonely even if you’re constantly with other people.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was worth exploring how it impacts our productivity, both in the sense of getting the things done that we care about and in making a life that matters.
Difference between isolation and loneliness
Isolation and loneliness can go hand in hand but they are not the same thing. Isolation is simply being separated from other people, whereas loneliness is a feeling that can come regardless of how many people are around.
Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the quantity and not quality of relationships.People may choose to have a small number of contacts. . . . Loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships. Loneliness is never desired and lessening these feelings can take a long time.
Are isolation and/or loneliness a 21st-century epidemic?
Many people think they are.
“With digital connection increasingly replacing face-to-face human interaction, loneliness is spreading round the world like a virus.”
In researching for this episode, I learned that the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018.
“Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral, internal experience. It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness, and shame. It also has social and political dimensions, shifting through time according to ideas about the self, God, and the natural world.”
A lot of research, thought, and writing looks at this epidemic of isolation and loneliness and tries to identify the causes. Several articles I read recently point to isolation and loneliness as being the consequence of a change in our worldview, about our society, and the individuals, and the place of individuals in society as a whole.
“The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialization, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion, and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasize that the individual was what mattered — not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.”
“loneliness can exist only in a world where the individual is conceived as separate from, rather than part of, the social fabric. It’s clear that the rise of individualism corroded social and communal ties, and led to a language of loneliness that didn’t exist prior to around 1800.”
“Where once philosophers asked what it took to live a meaningful life, the cultural focus has shifted to questions about individual choice, desire, and accomplishment. It is no coincidence that the term “individualism” was first used (and was a pejorative term) in the 1830s, at the same time that loneliness was in the ascendant. If loneliness is a modern epidemic, then its causes are also modern. . . .”
Scholars who study the epidemic of loneliness and isolation believe this has become more of an issue as our collective thinking about individualism has grown, as we focus more and more on individual fulfillment, development, and advancement, more so than thinking about society as a whole.
Even introverts, who find alone time restorative, need other people
The fact is, human beings are social animals. We need other people in our lives.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once our basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied, the next fundamental need we have to satisfy is the need for love and belonging. It is necessary for us to feel good about ourselves; we cannot become all we’re meant to be without it.
“Humans simply aren’t built to thrive in isolation. It’s impossible for us to show up and execute as the best version of ourselves possible… when we’re not supported by genuine human accountability.”
Causes/sources of isolation
One excellent article on loneliness and isolation suggests the following as potential physical and emotional causes of isolation:
- Physical causes
- Working remotely
- Loss of loved ones/friends through death or relocation
- Estrangement from family (or lack of close family ties)
- Living alone
- Retirement from work, home relocation, starting out in a new role or community
- Poor physical health, frailty, mobility issues
- Inability to participate in activities due to access issues, mobility, illness, transport
- Language or cultural barriers, or reduced connection with your culture of origin
- Geographic isolation
- Emotional causes
- Feelings of loss or grief
- A mental health condition such as depression or anxiety
- Fear of rejection from others or feelings of being “different” or stigmatized by society
- Lack of purpose or meaning in life
Sometimes (often) we isolate ourselves, consciously or not, to avoid vulnerability – “If no one gets close, no one can hurt me.” Yet as Brené Brown has told us, vulnerability is essential to the connection we all need.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
Brené Brown, 2012 TED Talk on shame
People who live “whole hearted” have courage (to be who they are), compassion (first for themselves, then for others), and connection born of authenticity.
Brené Brown, TED Talk on vulnerability
“Within families and in other close relationships, we love each other and we hurt each other. The question becomes, What has to end or die so we can experience a rebirth in our relationships?”
from Rising Strong, Brené Brown
The great dilemma of humanity is that we need connection, but connection makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability is scary to us.
Isolation, in its simple sense of being along, isn’t solely a negative thing. We need isolation (in the sense of solitude) for some kinds of thinking, deep work. Furthermore, some research indicates that people work faster/more efficiently in isolation:
“Research by [the] University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology researcher Dr. Tim Welsh says that regardless of their intentions, having an individual working on a different task – within your field of vision – could be enough to slow down your performance. . . . The reason for this is a built-in response-interpretation mechanism that is hard-wired into our central nervous systems. If we see someone performing a task we automatically imagine ourselves performing that task. This behaviour is part of our mirror neuron system.”
Although it can isolate us, remote working offers advantages: no commute, for example, and a comfortable working environment.
Despite those potential positive effects, long periods of loneliness or social isolation can have a negative impact on your physical, mental and social health, such as:
- Physical symptoms – aches and pains, headaches, illness or worsening of medical conditions
- Mental health conditions – increased risk of depression, anxiety, paranoia or panic attacks
- Low energy – tiredness or lack of motivation
- Sleep problems – difficulty getting to sleep, waking frequently or sleeping too much
- Diet problems – loss of appetite, sudden weight gain or loss
- Substance use – Increased consumption of alcohol, smoking, medications, drugs
- Negative feelings – feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or thoughts about suicide”
Multiple studies have shown that living with loneliness increases your odds of an early death by 45%, which is more than obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and air pollution. For more information about this, see Prof. John Cacioppo’s TED Talk about the lethality of loneliness.
So what can we do to address the experience and impacts of isolation or loneliness in our own lives? There are steps we can take, but one thing is for sure: Social media is not the answer!
“Through social media, people theoretically have much wider networks than they did. But research in the social sciences has found that this type of connection does not address loneliness in the same way as offline interaction — and that it may often make us feel worse. Numerous studies have linked greater use of social media and feelings of unhappiness, dissatisfaction with our lives and social isolation. We don’t yet know whether this is cause or correlation — people who feel unhappy or isolated may be more likely to turn to social media for comfort, for example — but it does suggest social media isn’t an effective way of combating loneliness.”
“A study published [in 2017] in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that social media users feel more isolated than peers who dedicate little time to online networks.”
The tl;dr solution: Be with other people!
If you work from home or otherwise spend lots of time alone, find ways to be with other people
- Go to Starbucks or Panera to work
- Video conference with your remote co-workers via Skype or Zoom
- Schedule in-person meetings or lunches
If you realize you’re isolating yourself for one of the emotional reasons, do the thought work, perhaps with the help of a coach or therapist, to enable yourself to connect more freely with others.
- Understand the reality and impact, and seek connection
- It’s not about the number of “friends,” but the quality. Find 1 individual you trust, someone you can confide in and who can confide in you
- Volunteer for something you’re interested in – sharing good times is a key to connectedness
We all feel lonely sometimes. It’s not a character flaw. If you have persistent thoughts of hopelessness or of hurting yourself, seek help!
- U.S.A – Suicide Prevention # 1-800-273-8255 – open 24/7
- International – List Of International Suicide Hotlines
What do you think?
Does isolation (or loneliness) affect your professional or personal productivity? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
- Loneliness and isolation – understanding the difference and why it matters
- Is loneliness a 21st-century epidemic? Why we’re all feeling more lonely
- The history of loneliness
- Isolation is killing our productivity and the only solution is Human
- Loneliness & Isolation
- Working Alone May Be The Key To Better Productivity, New Research Suggests
- Alone Together in the 21st-Century City
- How can we overcome loneliness?
- Brene Brown – 2012 TED Talk on shame
- Brene Brown – TED Talk on vulnerability
- Prof. John Cacioppo’s TED Talk about the lethality of loneliness
- Rising Strong by Brené Brown
Important Phone Numbers
- U.S.A – Suicide Prevention # 1-800-273-8255 – open 24/7
- International – List Of International Suicide Hotlines
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