The Los Angeles Times recently highlighted a study published in Heart, a British Medical Journal publication, that found loneliness can increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 50%.
If you’re an individualist, you should take note that your health and well-being depend in part on your relationships with others. But those who would put “others” before self had better understand that the risks to them of this error are even greater.
Loneliness is associated with health problems
The so-called “meta-analysis” in Heart looked at 23 different studies from several advanced countries that tracked subjects over periods of between 3 and 21 years. The findings put the risk for heart problems and stroke due to isolation from friends and family groups on the same level as light smoking. They found that isolation made a better predictor of vascular diseases than high blood pressure or obesity.
Isolation can result from a number of factors, including mobility problems and the death of family members and friends. It can also come from a choice to generally stay apart from others.
This study still leaves open the question of whether loneliness resulted in a failure to exercise or see doctors regularly, or in unhealthy habits like overeating, heavy drinking, or smoking, which, in turn, would increase health problems. As the newspaper review observed, “As a result, it's hard to know whether loneliness is a contributor to, the result of, or just another symptom of poor health. And for the same reason, it's hard to know whether programs aimed at getting the socially isolated to re-engage will improve their health, and how.”
But other studies suggest a strong relationship between psychological well-being—which is improved by association with friends and family—and physical health.
Communities are important to the individual
So what are the implications of these findings for individualists—including Objectivists—who argue that each of us should put our personal happiness and well-being first? Individualists argue, correctly, that individuals should be free to choose those associations with others that offer value for them.
Some who fancy themselves as individualists have mistakenly thought this means rejecting association with anyone who disagrees with them on the least little matter, from politics to tastes in music to favorite movies. This is an immature understanding of individualism. True individualists understand both the need to have core values and interests in common with others, but also the value in appreciating the complexities and complementary differences they have with others. But true individualists also understand that toxic relationships can have a devastating psychological effect on the parties involved. In that case, not engaging is better.
And to be alone does not mean being lonely. On a personal note, before I was married, taking a weekend alone to read a good book, go for a jog, and enjoy a good movie gave me no sense of angst or alienation. But now being married to the right person and having beautiful children makes things even better.
The insights of science today do inform true individualists that while they must choose only associations that contribute to their well-being, they should make finding relationships with others who share their values one of their priorities, for physical health as well as psychological reasons. Likewise, they should aim at choosing work that contributes to their well-being, and should make finding a career that brings them satisfaction a priority as well.
Individuals are the basis of community
The facts about the importance of associating with others should not give collectivists an excuse to justify philosophical altruism. This is the notion that it is moral to put others first, even to the detriment of self. Of course, altruism advocates might start by using these scientific findings about health and association with others to say “It’s for your own good!” but, in the long run, “your good” will be replaced by the good of others, and in the end, no one will be happy.
Humans are social animals. We have an innate psychological as well as physical need for the company of others. Friendships, families, and romantic partners are among the greatest joys of life. But you need to make them your joys!