As part of his “new year, new you” resolution, my husband bought an Oura smart ring. This beautiful little device represents the cutting edge of something called the quantified self movement—an arm of the personal development space founded on the belief that if you can track it, you can change it. This all started with the Fitbit, of course, and has expanded into a whole array of apps and devices that try to motivate us to change by pumping out personalized percentages, charts and graphs. Oura is one of the latest, sleekest iterations, and their website proudly touts the device as “your new secret weapon for personal improvement.”
I’m no stranger to the world of progress tracking, having spent the past three years focusing on improving my physical and mental health. But in 2019, my “new year, new you” challenge is all about finding ways to move from disconnection to connection—something quite a bit more difficult to measure.
There is the concept of social capital, of course, which we can quantify in a variety of ways—everything from survey questions that ask respondents to identify the number of people in their lives with whom they can discuss “important matters,” to rates of volunteerism and levels of participation in league bowling. And when it comes to tracking our society’s epic struggle with connection, the news isn’t good, and hasn’t been for decades.
But bringing the measures down from the societal level to the personal, it’s a little more difficult to see change over time. There are methods—even software—I could use to map my social network, which would give me a sense of the quantity, type, and strength of my ties. But this doesn’t quite get at the subjective experience of loneliness. According to almost half of all Americans, it’s possible to live in a hyperconnected world and even have a large social network, yet still feel very much alone.
In their landmark book on this subject, called, simply, Loneliness, the late John Cacioppo and William Patrick explain that because being enmeshed in supportive relationships is the natural state of our species, social connection is only really quantifiable insofar as it is absent. Thus, from a measurement standpoint, social connection is defined as the state of being “not lonely”—a bit like “not thirsty” or “not hungry.” “There is no better, more specific term for it,” write Cacioppo and Patrick. In other words, if I want to track my progress toward my goal of reconnecting, I can’t really measure how connected I am, only how lonely.
So just how lonely am I? How “thirsty” for community? It turns out that there is a reliable psychological assessment to determine this. It includes questions such as “How often do you feel that no one really knows you well?” and “How often do you feel that people are around you but not with you?” Out of a total possible score of 80, I’m a 60. Which puts me deep in the red zone. I had to do the math twice just to be sure I hadn’t made a mistake.
I have to admit that even though I want and need to feel more connected, the idea that I am deeply lonely strikes me as odd. I’m not a recluse. I’m not even really that much of an introvert. I have over 900 Facebook “friends” as well as a loving marriage and extended family members living nearby. And on top of all that, I live in a state that consistently ranks among the highest in the nation on measures of social capital. So what gives?
As I reviewed the questions that produced my “loneliness score,” a few themes emerged. Companionship. Belonging. Openness. Care. These key concepts underscore something that, deep down, I already know: a great many of my relationships lack intimacy and authenticity. And they can’t make up in quantity what they lack in quality. It’s not that I need more connections—I need connections that are more meaningful, marked by more vulnerability and authenticity, and animated more by love and mutual support. And in this need I am certainly not alone.
In an era in which descriptors like “evidence-based” are seen as the highest praise it’s no wonder that we will invest billions in wearable devices that help us set SMART goals for self-improvement. We live in a culture that loves nothing more than measurable results. The problem, however, is that what we can quantify is not always what will most improve our lives.
Becoming “not lonely” is the result of time consistently invested in activities like swapping stories, having one more cup of tea, showing up when the going gets rough, and learning how to say the right thing at the right moment. None of which are particularly easy to measure or track.
And so in the eyes of our outcome-obsessed culture, it’s no wonder that we opt instead to spend time getting in our 10,000 steps. If only there were an equally effective device to nudge us to invest time and energy in the improvement of our relationships. Alas, we are a nation of personal development fanatics chasing “measurable results” on treadmills—alone.
But every time I see the glint of my husband’s “secret weapon for personal improvement,” I will remember that in trying to more consistently engage, connect, and reach out in love and vulnerability, I am developing a secret weapon of my own. And by the end of the year, I just might have the “loneliness score” to prove it.