The Lonely American

article image
image by Paul Wearing

This article is part of a package on the golden age of re-engagement. For more, readThe 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.

First, let’s look at the frenetic busyness of our lives. Americans may be the only people in the world who believe that each individual has the right and the capacity to fit whatever he or she wants into one small life. America is the original “You can be anything you want if you really try, and it’s never too late to start trying!” country.

A good friend described the impact of busyness on our neighborhoods brilliantly: “Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbors means not bothering them.” People’s lives are shaped by how busy they are. Lives also are shaped by the respect and deference that is given to busyness–especially when it is valued above connection and community. If people are considerate, they assume that their neighbors are very busy and so try not to intrude on them. Dropping by is no longer neighborly. It is simply rude.

We treat socializing as if it’s a frivolous diversion from the tasks at hand rather than an activity that is essential to our well-being as individuals and as a community. Soon our not bothering to call people (or even e-mail them) gets read by others as a sign that we are too caught up in the busy sweep of our own lives to have time for them. Our friends are not surprised. Our relatives may be indignant, but even they know how hard it is. An unspoken understanding develops. It’s too bad that we’ve lost touch, but that’s just the way it is.

The pace of everyday life may push us toward isolation, but there is a pull, as well: a very seductive picture of standing apart as a victory, not a retreat. Ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay and Henry David Thoreau set out to embody the concept in his cabin on Walden Pond, a long series of American icons have idealized the concept of self-reliance.

A culture’s attitude toward the ties that bind pervasively shapes how its members interact with the world. These cultural blinders are made clear by a favorite question in cross-cultural research. People are asked to complete the sentence “I love my mother but . . .” In Western countries, the usual response is critical and distancing, something along the lines of “I love my mother but . . . she’s just so difficult.” In Southeast Asia, the usual response is “I love my mother but . . . I can never repay all that she has done for me.” What makes the exercise so powerful is that most people cannot imagine the other response until they are presented with it. As self-reliant Americans, we are automatically prepared to question the value of our strongest bonds and to step away from them when necessary, relying instead on ourselves.

And when we do find ourselves isolated, by standing tall in our own minds, side by side with self-reliant heroes, each of us is suddenly no longer alone but part of a group–a great American tradition of lonesome cowboys and go-it-alone entrepreneurs. That psychological magic becomes the spoonful of sugar that makes painful experiences of finding ourselves left out easier to swallow. We may have isolated ourselves without entirely meaning to, but we also have ended up in a place that looks a lot like where we always knew that we were supposed to stand. On the outside, proud to be there.

It is also the last place on earth that a person would want to be.

The consequences of social disconnection are both extensive and remarkably diverse. To begin with, social support is an important determinant of overall health. It has significant effects on longevity, on an individual’s response to stress, on immune functions, and on the incidence of a variety of specific illnesses. In diseases as varied as heart attacks and dementia, medical research repeatedly has found that social networks and social activity have a protective effect.

Social isolation damages ecological health, as well. The rising tide of single-person households strains the earth’s resources. Additionally, in our consumer-oriented culture, a common solution to not having enough people in one’s life is to turn to things, objects that will define one’s identity through possessions rather than through one’s place in a social world. (We once passed an elegant store in New York City whose name summed up the problem: More and More. We watched the shop from across the street, keeping a safe distance.)

Parents who don’t have relatives or friends to help them gain perspective on their offspring are more likely to over-scrutinize the strange, quirky symptoms that are part of normal childhood development and to start wondering if their child will grow up to be a strange, quirky, and abnormal adult. This nervous, unchecked watching may be partially responsible for the fact that more American children and adolescents are on psychoactive medications than ever before.

Additionally, even seemingly trivial experiences of social exclusion have been shown to lead to an increase in aggressive behavior. Researchers hypothesize that aggressive impulses are normally held in check by social relationships and community norms–constraints that we usually refer to as a moral sense or conscience. People who lose the sense of belonging to a community are less likely to restrain their combative urges.

Unfortunately for many, the problem of feeling isolated and left out has an easy solution: Have a drink or a pill that makes you feel better. There is no need to call anyone up or make it clear that you’re lonely. Some substances, like alcohol, even make it easier for shy and lonely strangers to enjoy one another’s company. We frequently hear socially awkward college students say that they have to use alcohol or drugs because it’s the only way they know to be part of a group. They are very clear that they are using substances to cure loneliness, but, as they poignantly explain, they can’t find any other way. Sometimes, at least, the cure is successful and drug use does allow entry into a network of friends. But all too often, the drug itself becomes the friend.

Substance abuse is a complex phenomenon. It almost certainly does not have a single cause. But the substance abuse of a great many individuals is fueled by their experiences of social rejection and social isolation. The rising rate of depression and the rising numbers of both adults and children who use antidepressant medication are also fueled (again, in part) by experiences of social rejection and social isolation. These changes have occurred in the context of major social changes in the United States–as networks of confidants have fallen away, as the number of individuals living alone has skyrocketed, as social capital has declined. One study of 389 American cities found that deaths from alcoholism and suicide increase when people live alone. It would be foolish to ignore these correlations, even as we recognize that substance abuse is a complex phenomenon with more than one cause.

The truth is that if one can bring oneself to acknowledge loneliness, half the battle is won. It is not an easy half of a battle, however. When we began to talk about these ideas with friends, their first response was to passionately defend their styles of staying disconnected. Having chosen, like so many Americans, to step back, they explained how right the choice has been for them.

It is exactly that kind of reflexive claim–we chose it, so it must make us happy–that traps people. The argument that people are happier when they can spend more time alone seems to make so much sense, yet over the course of a life (and a country’s life) it is simply wrong. The medical evidence tells us otherwise. The happiness research tells us otherwise. Statistics on crime and substance abuse tell us otherwise. Yes, we all need balance in our lives. We all need time away from the crowd. But we also need one another–and feeling left out, even when one has chosen to be left out, is not satisfying. It is painful.

Small daily choices–whether to go to a local store or order off the Internet, whether to pick up a ringing telephone or let it go to voice mail, whether to get together with a friend or pop in a DVD–end up defining one’s social world. These little decisions are cumulative. You step back a little from others. They step back a little from you. You feel a little left out. Feeling left out, unexamined, leads you to step back further. But feeling left out, when it’s examined, can lead people to work a little harder to reconnect.

Awareness of the risks of social disconnection can also change the bigger decisions that people make: whether to work from home or to work alongside others (see “In Praise of the Water Cooler” on p. 54); whether to live alone or to live with others. People regularly make those choices based on what they think they are supposed to want, even when their own experiences tell them it is a mistake.

In the end, we as a nation must return to the ideals that shape the choices we make–the myths that we live by and the heroes of those myths in whose footsteps we long to follow. The ideal of the self-reliant outsider can supply a heroic gloss for a decision to give up on relationships, with all their difficulties, demands, and complications. It lets us spin an escape as an act of courage. But if we sell ourselves on the idea that our escapes ennoble us, we’re much less likely to find our way back.

We need other heroes, those whose courage and creativity flow from their engagement and connection with others. And if we have stories about staying engaged that can also make us feel brave, if we include in our pantheon of heroes individuals who step into the fray of human entanglements, then we enhance both our awareness of the choices we make and our freedom to choose. We start to free the small but crucial decisions of everyday life from a set of glorious but too-rigid ideals that have not always served us well.

Loneliness was never the goal. It’s just the spot where too many people wind up. We get stuck because the world we have wandered away from is so frantic and demanding. We get stuck because we have dreamed about lonesome heroes who stand defiantly apart. We get stuck because we feel left out and stop looking for ways back in. We should remember that the outside was not meant to be our final destination.

Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz are professors of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. They are married and have two grown children. Excerpted from The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century. Copyright © 2009 by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press;

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.