The Lonely American

Choosing to reconnect in the 21st century


| March-April 2009


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.

Skye
6/8/2018 9:33:36 AM

Traditional communities and small,towns are,certainly much less lonely. Everyone knows everyone. Neighbors support one another. There is a cozy sense of "we"- we around here think this, believe this, do things this way. There is a,lot of nostalgia for it- the Lake Wobegon style of life. All we have to do is go back to a system in which people married young, and permanently, stayed close,to their extended families, had multi children, ensuring the next generation would also have sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins to provide a sense of belonging. Everyone went to church. Everyone joined the Moose and the,bowling,league,if they were working,class, the Rotary, Jinipr League and country,club if they were upper class. And people stayed within a strong ethnic and religious community. If we want a society in which cities and suburbs are integrated, people are free to delay,or eschew marriage, church is a declining institution, and families are smaller, so that fewer people even have siblings or cousins.....then we are building a certain polite distance into our lives as the price of coexistence.


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!















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