It’s understandable that any profession, regardless of industry, is destined to get monotonous and lifeless in the absence of human interaction. Even the polling organisation Gallup provides employers with 12 questions to gauge an employee’s engagement at work. And one of them is: “Do you have a best friend at work?”

Yet, a group of Harvard researchers needed 85 years to conclude that, of course with data evidence. The recently released report got wide attention in the media. It says the unhappiest jobs are most often the loneliest ones, where employees are not able to work with a team, require little human interaction, and don’t offer opportunities to build meaningful relationships with co-workers. “If you are more connected to people, you feel more satisfied with your job, and do better work,” according to Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz discussed the factor that correlates with good living, namely “good relationships,” in their 2023 book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness’. “Positive relationships at work lead to lower stress levels, healthier workers, and fewer days when we come home upset,” the authors conclude. “They also, simply, make us happier.”

More than 700 people from all across the world were interviewed by Harvard researchers every two years. Interestingly, the study was started in 1938, at the height of the Great Depression, with the expectation that the longitudinal study would provide insights about leading a happy and healthy life. Society, the workplace, work culture, and technology have all changed significantly since then. Many new jobs were created in between, whose natures were beyond imagination in that era.

The tech factor

Ah, technology! This year, the mobile phone turned 50. Do smartphones not make us a lonely society? Sherry Turkle, an MIT technology and society professor, argues that we are currently in a state of “continual co-presence,” in which digital communication enables the occurrence of two or more realities at the same time and place, in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Also, the workplace culture has undergone a dramatic paradigm shift. This is especially concerning in the pandemic-affected world, where working from home is a widespread practice and the new normal. Our sense of loneliness grows stronger. Then, is technology making us less happy? Maybe. But just technology? Maybe not.

Well, in a 1953 article in The Nation, the celebrated American writer Ray Bradbury detailed his personal experience when he spotted a couple walking their dog in Beverly Hills one night. “The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear,” wrote Bradbury. “There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there,” Bradbury perceived.

It was a reality 70 years ago! Thus, according to the Harvard study, should we be concerned about our growing loneliness as a result of our compulsive work-from-home culture and the intrusive effects of technology, or is “lonely togetherness” simply a trait of human civilisation?

The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata