A Storytelling Serial
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THE DANGERS OF WORKING ALONE
I've always been a fan of solitude. But I recently realized that all my favorite jobs—out of a long work history—involved being part of a team, achieving goals with people whose company I enjoyed.
And now, as the sole proprietor of an online business, my work is often lonely. Plus, I’m bored by my own predictable company. I miss the camaraderie of colleagues, along with their new ideas and fresh energy.
So I decided to look at a few articles that analyze recent research on the effects of social isolation.
All humans are social creatures.
Not surprisingly, my reading confirmed the timeless truth that research results can be interpreted differently, and study findings can seem at odds. But the experts agree on a couple of things.
One is that human DNA makes us all social animals. Another is that isolation and loneliness aren’t the same, and it’s completely possible to be isolated without being lonely—and to feel quite lonely in the midst of people.
And many of the summarized studies provide fairly solid evidence that social isolation and loneliness contribute to poor physical and mental health, causing us to live miserably and die sooner.
Isolation is bad for our health.
Here’s a tidbit I didn’t expect, though: researchers assumed isolation would harm health less than loneliness does, but one prominent study throws that assumption into question and shows that social isolation by itself—independent of loneliness—quickens death as much as smoking, obesity, lack of activity, and high blood pressure.
The problem isn’t always loneliness. Just being alone, even if you choose it, is bad for you. Like smoking, overeating, sitting around, and raging at the world: no matter how much you might enjoy the lifestyle, it’s going to kill you faster.
Technology isn’t the same as up close and personal.
But in a time of hyperconnectedness through technology, none of us need worry about social isolation, right?
According to Claire Pomeroy, the head of a foundation targeted toward funding medical research, “Thanks to remarkable new technologies and the widespread use of social media, we are more 'connected' than ever before. Yet as a nation, we are also more lonely. In fact, a recent study found that a staggering 47 percent of Americans often feel alone, left out and lacking meaningful connection with others. This is true for all ages, from teenagers to older adults.”
The types of human interaction that do good are
As researcher Steve Cole, PhD, says, “Working for a social cause or purpose with others who share your values and are trusted partners puts you in contact with others and helps develop a greater sense of community.”
Connection can pose a paradox.
Nevertheless, the research that I found ignores a couple of issues heavily involved in my initial choice to work alone.
I live in a large metropolitan area with heavy traffic and roads that—between constant construction and all types of weather—can be hazardous twelve months of the year. Regular driving isn’t sustainable for me or the planet.
Worse, in my part of town, public transportation is sporadic, unreliable, somewhat dangerous, and under the best of circumstances doesn’t get me where I need to go in any kind of reasonable timeframe.
In-person connection has challenges.
And although I have warm memories of team and community membership, I also have chilling memories of negative teams and unsupportive communities—and of professional and personal situations where I was surrounded by those who shared few of my values. I’m painfully aware social interaction, even for a consciously chosen purpose, doesn’t always feel good.
But the findings are clear: for true well-being, we need to know we’re part of something greater than ourselves. This could mean making a deliberate, highly uncomfortable effort to avoid joining our general societal slide toward increased individualism, currently fueled by the social polarization of irreconcilable differences.
To get important things done, we might have to physically rub elbows with people who rub us the wrong way.
At least face-to-face there’s a chance we’ll discover enough shared values and build enough trust to work toward a common goal.
It’s not easy to ghost those sitting next to us.
Isolation may mean fighting alienation.
One of the articles I read refers to an “‘epidemic’ of alienation and despair.” As a word junkie, I immediately thought of a term I learned back in eighth-grade social studies: anomie, which Merriam-Webster online defines as “personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.”
As a solopreneur, I finally understand something that, to my fourteen-year-old self, was an abstract concept to remember for a test. Am I falling victim to anomie? Are you? Is someone you know?
If so, we need to insist on reconnection. Face-to-face. With respected and valued people. And as part of a community, with a sense of purpose and meaning.
What better time of year for taking steps to make sure no one (including you and me) is isolated in a world that, more than ever, needs us to stand together—rather than decay alone?
Below, please share your thoughts on the dangers of working alone—whether you do it, wish you did it, never want to do it, or know someone (like me) who does.
12/1/2019 04:38:06 am
I'm in a new job where I'm working remotely, so I'm alone but not alone. It is difficult being part of the group, when I'm not physically there. (I make the three-hour drive over a couple of times a month.) But at the same time, the type of work I do requires a great deal of extended concentration, and the physical set-up is an open work space, so I'd end up working from home a lot even I lived in town.
12/1/2019 09:31:59 am
Thanks for sharing your situation, Liz. I've experienced the frustration of needing quiet and space for concentration but working for people who didn't understand that aspect of my job and thus didn't make it a priority to find the room necessary for their employees to work well.
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