The number of prescriptions to treat depression and anxiety has doubled in ten years. I’ve recently been reading Lost Connections by Johan Hari, and his theory is that this is due to the increasing sense of loneliness that many people feel.
I reflected on how my clients often talk about feeling lonely, as do my friends. I can see that our culture seems to promote individualism, and tends towards competition and separation.
It took me a while to recognise: wait a minute, I feel lonely too. Despite having lots of friends, being surrounded by people most of the time and working in a coworking space, I didn’t feel that my need for connection, intimacy and community were being met on a day-to-day basis.
Right now, you and I are communicating with each other, but as so often in modern life, it is through the proxy of a screen. I wonder how much of today we will spend staring into one, instead of looking another human in the eye?
It’s one of the things I most detest about modern life. After a day on my laptop, I often feel fuzzy, and even a bit nauseous. I self-medicate during screen sessions with sweet and/or caffeinated treats in a vain attempt to alleviate the pain of disconnection.
When I’m away from technology for a week, I feel so much better. And yet, it seems difficult to avoid. I like writing blogs. Email seems essential. I edit a podcast. We’re ensnared in an uncomfortable web that we can’t easily escape from.
In my previous coworking space, I would usually sit by myself in the meeting area, shunning the communal working area for its lack of natural light. This met my need for sunshine, but not human connection. Despite being surrounded by people, I felt thoroughly alone.
Occasionally, I would look up to judge a stranger for sounding robotic on the phone or talking inhumanly in business-speak. At other times, I would overhear things that made me judge myself for being ‘behind’, compared to what sounded like an impressive group of people making large amounts of money or achieving big things.
If I hadn’t been reading that book and had the support of a coach and a friend, I would have started to more seriously entertain the thought that there was something wrong with me. Why do I feel this morose? Why isn’t my life more on track? Why aren’t I more successful?
It’s interesting to me that lots of people say they want to achieve financial independence — enough money to live without having to work. That basically means that you don’t need anybody.
You don’t need an employer, colleagues or clients. You can just eat takeaways, pay someone to clean your house, raise your children, groom you, support you through emotional turmoil… Companies will even buy and wrap your Christmas presents and put up your decorations. And if one of those people died, they would just be replaced. You might not even notice.
But at the same time, people say they want community. What does community mean? My understanding is that it’s the opposite of financial independence. It’s a group of people who do need each other. They cook for each other, lend each other a hammer or a blender, look after each other’s children, work together and support each other in tough times.
A few months ago, I changed coworking space to one where there is a much stronger sense of community. There’s a maximum of 15 people, so it’s easier to get to know everyone. Someone bangs a gong at 1pm every day and we all stop and eat lunch together. Three days a week, someone cooks for everyone. It feels like being welcomed into a family.
I don’t think there are many coworking spaces like that.
It’s still quite a light form of community though. People are very transient and often disappear for a month or two, and we all work independently, on our own projects, on our own laptops. If someone stops coming, we do notice, but in some sense people seem quite replaceable.
What I long for is to be working as part of a team of 5–8 people, where no one’s the boss, we’re all doing something we enjoy, we help each other win and deliver the work, and we therefore need each other.
I’ve been deeply inspired by reading about Teal, a paradigm for how to run organisations non-hierarchically. It’s funny how we think we live in a democracy but most of us work under dictatorships.
Four of us got together last week to explore how we could do this. I feel that if we can crack it, we would be creating a model that would help many people whose work lacks purpose and connection. It would certainly be life-changing for me.
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