The state of feeling completely emotionally separated from others and, at times, from one's own true feelings.
Sociologists observed an increase in this feeling of alienation among younger people between the 1960s and the early 2000s. Initially, they attributed the rise in alienation to societal conditions: the rapid changes in society during this period, the increase in alcohol and drug abuse, violence in the media, or the lack of communal values in the culture. Many psychologists, however, came to believe that widespread use of the Internet, while it may facilitate connections, also diminishes face-to-face human interaction and increases alienation. Some individuals become alienated when they perceive government, employment, or educational institutions as cold and impersonal and unresponsive to those who need their services. Entire groups may experience alienation. For example, ethnic minorities or residents of inner city neighborhoods can feel the opportunities of mainstream society are beyond their reach.
Feeling separated from society, however, is not the only way a person experiences alienation: Sometimes individuals feel alienated from their true self. When individuals accept social expectations (for example, taking over a family business) that conflict with their true desires (such as becoming a doctor) they may feel profoundly alienated. Although such individuals may appear successful in the role others expect them to assume, their true wishes lie hidden.
In the workplace, many jobs have become increasingly specialized. Workers often see little connection between the tasks they perform and the final product or service. They may feel the lack of real community in a workplace. Many people feel intensely isolated even in the midst of a busy work environment. In the 1840s, American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Thoreau remedied his own feelings of alienation by retreating to a solitary, simple life on the banks of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. He felt less isolated there, even though he lived alone, than when he lived in town. In a populated town, his feelings of alienation confronted him daily because his activities did not reflect his true feelings and desires.
Alienation is expressed differently by different people. Some become withdrawn and lethargic; others react with hostility and violence; still others may become disoriented, rejecting traditional values and behavior. Some individuals may adopt an eccentric appearance and bizarre behaviors. When society undergoes rapid changes, traditional values and behavioral standards are challenged; some people find little they can believe in. They have difficulty constructing a place for themselves. Social and cultural beliefs play an important role in creating or averting feelings of alienation.
Psychologists can help people cope with feelings of alienation by developing cognitive exercises or assigning behavioral tasks to help individuals become engaged in society. After identifying a client's true passions, the psychologist may suggest a volunteer activity, a night class, or a job change to bring the person into contact with others in a meaningful way. Cognitive distortions such as mind reading, overgeneralization, or all-or-nothing thinking often underlie alienation and must be challenged.
Some have proposed treating alienation by fostering social solutions rather than individual solutions. One social solution is the idea of communitarianism, a movement begun early in the 1990s by Amitai Etzioni, a sociology professor from George Washington University in Washington, DC. Etzioni became a popular speaker and writer in the mid-1990s with the publication of his book, The Spirit of Community. Etzioni advocates a return to community values to replace the increasing alienation of contemporary culture. More local solutions include use of the Internet for meet-up groups and for volunteerism.
See also Affiliation ; Associations; Grief ; Peer acceptance ; Social psychology .
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