Posted on: May 8, 2023 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Abby Hobbs, JRN-111 Student

Today’s political polarization can lead to mistrusting each other. And mistrust can lead to isolation. And isolation can lead to loneliness. And loneliness leads to more mistrust, which leads to more polarization…and so on.

All of this is creating a crisis in our democracy, according to four Moraine Valley professors who presented a panel discussion, “The Importance of Belonging for Democracy” in the library lounge on April 27.

“We are becoming less and less connected to one another,” psychology professor Laura Lauzen-Collins said. “We’re joining fewer groups, and we’re attending fewer community events.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Democracy Commitment and the One Book One College program, featuring expert perspectives from professors at Moraine, each from a different subject area. Included were Lauzen-Collins, sociology professor Alison Lacny, history professor Merri Fefles, and political science professor Kevin Navratil.

Loneliness is universal, meaning everyone feels it at some point in their lives. With this feeling at hand, we may lack a sense of belonging, which is fundamental to our well-being.

The panel discussion is available for viewing on the Moraine library YouTube channel.

To put the loneliness into perspective, Fefles gave a social reference point for attendees: “12 percent of Americans had no friends in 2021,” Fefles said. “That compares to 1990, where only 3 percent had no friends.”

Panelists also explained that we’ve been more reluctant to form social connections regarding church attendance, marriage, work, family, and other major engagements. Navratil believes that one reason for this is a lack of trust, especially in our government institutions.

“Look at our approval rate or trust in Congress, the presidency, The Supreme Court, the media, the list goes on and on,” Navratil said. “These are at an all time low.”

From this lack of trust comes isolation, which furthers our disconnect from each other and creates a sense of loneliness. The greater the disconnect, the more likely we are to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. This causes a ‘snowball effect.’

Lauzen-Collins says loneliness causes us to constantly search for threats, leading to this sense of unease and anxiety.

“When we’re alone, we’re more vigilant for threats that might be coming up,” Lauzen-Collins said. “That means we’re thinking with these structures in the middle of our brain called amygdala.” The amygdala is part of the limbic system–which is responsible for the behaviors needed for survival–and is responsible for emotions, behavior, and motivation. 

“When it sends signals to the prefrontal cortex, it shuts it down; not totally, but it limits it,” Lauzen-Collins said. “When you’re lonely, you’re constantly searching for that threat.”

12 percent of Americans had no friends in 2021. That compares to 1990, where only 3 percent had no friends.

Merri Fefles, MV History Professor

To expand on its physical impacts, Professor Lacny took a different approach, describing how loneliness correlates with socio-economic standing.

“If you live in a poor area, you live in fear and isolation; you’re less likely to go outside,” Lacny said. “If you’re less likely to go outside, you feel homebound, and you’re less likely to make connections.”

Audience members agreed with some of these points, announcing it aloud.

“I never thought about this connection until now,” a student told their friend mid-panel. “These are some good points.”

Fefles expanded onto Lacny’s point with her own personal experience.

“If you’re not outside as much, you’re not seeing your neighbors as much,” Fefles said. “I met so many of my neighbors when I got a dog because everyone’s outside. Otherwise we’re inside: in the house, in the car, and not talking to anyone.”

When audience questions came around, students raised hands during a 30-minute period and engaged. One audience member questioned technology and its potential effects on loneliness, presenting the panelists and attendees with yet another approach.

“The more we talk about it, the more it sounds like it’s a cultural problem more than a technological problem,” they said. “Because while there are cons of technology, there are also pros.” They then provided a pro: If one wanted to communicate or make a friend with someone overseas, it could be done with a simple text.

Panelists nodded their heads, while Lauzen-Collins agreed that the attendee made a “very good point.” 

“I think that it’s both,” she added. “There are cultural differences about the United States that make us prone to isolation, but we also see this in other countries. Some people are able to use technology to connect with others in a very meaningful way, but it may not be like that for everybody.”

Student Success Center program assistant Ken Potocki left the event understanding how important it is to feel like you belong.

“Feeling like you belong is so important for mental health and overall well-being,” Potocki said. “When people feel isolated, they’re more likely to turn to negative behaviors.”