The Lonely American

Choosing to reconnect in the 21st century


| March-April 2009



Lonley American

image by Paul Wearing

This article is part of a package on the golden age of re-engagement. For more, read  The Art of a Lively Conversation : Be real. Be brave. Be bold. (And learn some manners.),  All in the Neighborhood : Want to see the world? Start by staying home.,  One Nation, Indivisible : Reconnecting the public with its public servants.

Americans in the 21st century devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history, yet somehow the devices fail us: Studies show that we feel increasingly alone. Our lives are spent in a tug-of-war between conflicting desires—we want to stay connected, and we want to be free. We lurch back and forth, reaching for both. How much of one should we give up in order to have more of the other? How do we know when we’ve got it right?

Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed. Our country is now filled with them.

The second study was the 2000 U.S. census. One of the most remarkable facts to emerge from this census is that one of four households consists of one person only. The number of one-person households has been increasing steadily since 1940, when they accounted for roughly 7 percent of households. Today, there are more people living alone than at any point in U.S. history. Placing the census data and the GSS side by side, the evidence that this country is in the midst of a major social change is overwhelming.

The significance of this increased aloneness is amplified by a very different body of research. There is now a clear consensus among medical researchers that social connection has powerful effects on health. Socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses. Health and happiness, the two things we all say matter most, are certifiably linked to social connectedness.

Yet people in this country continue to drift apart. We need to know why.

helena_2
1/7/2010 2:48:42 PM

Very interesting article! Today on the news they mentioned how anti-depressants are just as effective as a sugar pill and that 'talk' therapy is really what helps people who are suffering from mild to moderate depression. I think it's important to have a support network and friends to a certain extent, but as Jen mentioned above, everyone is different. I would probably be classified as an introvert and really enjoy my alone time. I spend my day in a busy office mingling with co-workers and when I get home I just want to relax with my husband and daughter and decompress. The alone time really allows me to recharge my batteries and prepare for the following day....it's all about balance. I do know lots of folks who prefer to be with people all the time...that to me seems exhausting!


helena_3
1/7/2010 2:47:57 PM

Very interesting article! Today on the news they mentioned how anti-depressants are just as effective as a sugar pill and that 'talk' therapy is really what helps people who are suffering from mild to moderate depression. I think it's important to have a support network and friends to a certain extent, but as Jen mentioned above, everyone is different. I would probably be classified as an introvert and really enjoy my alone time. I spend my day in a busy office mingling with co-workers and when I get home I just want to relax with my husband and daughter and decompress. The alone time really allows me to recharge my batteries and prepare for the following day....it's all about balance. I do know lots of folks who prefer to be with people all the time...that to me seems exhausting!


karl doner
5/5/2009 7:21:43 PM

Some Americans find relief and comfort from these pressures by going to church.


human720193
3/29/2009 12:40:47 PM

It's incredible how this article hits home on so many aspects of my life experience in north America since leaving the familial home. It took almost 10 years for me to even begin to identify the source of that omnipresent feeling of dissatisfaction despite constant professional and material success. It is a widespread feeling that is expressed by many people with a similar socio-economic profile, as soon as we manage to get past the default "Everything is fine" facade. So far I have been a consumer, now I want to be a Citizen. It is very hard to be a Citizen by standing alone in a corner, especially if it's a golden corner with a giant flatscreen TV and a German convertible in the garage. Why is the example of the neighbour a relevant one? Probably because the neighbours are amongst the first to drop from the social network with frequent moves and long hours spent at the office. Me and my next door neighbour might not be able to have interesting discussions about my work or his passion for Romantic composers, but we do have default common interests dictated by the fact that we share the same geographical space. To realize this you obviously have to extend the idea of your space of interest beyond your condo or house. The street, the hallway, the apartment complex, the neighbourhood park, all are shared spaces between me and the neighbours. They don't have to be my best buddies, but a 30 minute chat once a month about why, for example, I don't feel safe letting the kids play in the park might actually lead to some real coordinated action. Of course I still have that distant voice inside saying "I will simply buy a bigger house, with my own park inside it". But then again what about the street? Highway access? Public transportation? The quality of tap water? Security? The statistical truth is simply that unless you are one of the thousand or so billionaires in the US, you will not be able to solve all of these aspects of local


francesca
3/27/2009 11:08:14 AM

Something I noticed at work (I just started my first job out of college) is the cafeteria dynamic--We have a food court and most people from my office just sit with the same people from work or they just bring their food back to their desks. There was a guy I met during the orientation--we chatted a bit while waiting for them to make our building access passes and he said hi to me in the halls. The other day I went and sat with his group in the cafeteria..all from the marketing dept, but I am in HR. I am trying not be one of those closed off and lonely people and expand my group!


jen_3
3/26/2009 4:41:15 PM

While I think the authors have a valid point that there may be more lonely people today, I think there is more than one way of looking at the issue and there are more solutions that simply socializing with your neighbors. First of all, why does being busy always get such a bad rap? I know lots of people who are busy trying to make the world a better place and who are connecting with people through their work, volunteer projects, and other activities. The authors (and others) assume that there cannot be connection and community with busyness. I believe most people are more likely to connect with people who share common interests and values than with someone who randomly lives nearby. Why the focus on neighbors? Why not also suggest that people get involved in other ways that make sense for them. There are a lot of statistics about how many live people live alone, but "alone" is different than "lonely." Assuming that most people who live alone are lonely is just that - an assumption. All people need different levels of contact. Some people enjoy lots of contact with people and others just a little here and there. Assuming that all people want lots of people to talk to often seems a bit off base. This article almost does a disservice in that it exaggerates the problem. "drifting apart" "tug-of-war between conflicting desires" etc. is just unnecessarily dramatic... Finally... there have been quite a few articles about loneliness lately, and most suggest taking more time to socialize and visit. Maybe if we all focused our energies on finding ways we can be useful in this world, we would stop focusing on "oh poor me and all of my problems. No one cares." Maybe the problem is that people spend too much time focusing on themselves, and if we focused outward we would be more fulfilled by that and not feel like our own issues and problems were so terrible.


neela patel
3/7/2009 11:54:43 AM

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and am of Asian descent. Despite finding fantastic jobs and a great life partner, I am still not at home here in the USA. Finally an article that explains why. The lonliness is the most unexpected cultural shock America has to offer. And it's not going to get better.


delfino cornali
2/24/2009 12:28:10 AM

When I returned from my travels in Latin America to the United States, what culture-struck me the hardest was the degree of isolation in Americans' lives. Wow, what a contrast from virtually every country I visited. I was never able to adequately give voice to my concerns, because (as the article points out) so many Americans are PROUD to have CHOSEN this independent (and horribly lonely) lifestyle.