The loneliness epidemic

What Is

Americans living today may well be the loneliest people who have ever lived on earth. Really.

Do you have relationships with people with whom you feel you can confide your deepest feelings? Thirty years ago the most common answer to that question was three relationships. The most common answer today is zero! In one major academic study a decade ago the numbers were so shocking that the sociologists at first thought they had made a mistake in their research. 

A pile of studies by social scientists document not only how lonely people are, but how the amount of loneliness has exploded in the last 20 years or so. The former surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, called social isolation a bigger health issue than cancer, obesity or heart disease. Lately there have been shocking trends. Suicides are way up. The opioid crises is claiming thousands of lives. Life expectancy is down for the first time in ages. Loneliness is not the cause of this, but isolation is a factor in hopelessness. The problem of isolation is worse for men than for women. 

The irony is jaw dropping. In an age of social media and email and instant messages we are more isolated than ever. There is mounting evidence that our electronic gadgets that connect us also isolate us. We have more superficial contact and less intimacy. 

In my previous post I looked back 600 years to draw a contrast between human life today (in the “developed” world) and life in the late middle ages. While life was hard and often short, loneliness was seldom an issue. Homes were small. Families were large and often multigenerational. Almost no one lived alone. Today, almost a third of American households are single person households. Nothing like this has ever existed in human history.

There are lots of causes for the isolation. I already mentioned the rise in people living alone. We move a lot, breaking relationships each time. Television, and now computer screens (including smartphones and tablets), suck our attention. Think how common it is to see a group of people all looking at their phones or laptops. Even things like air conditioning keep us indoors when before people would go outside on a warm evening. 

To make things worse, the institutions that once brought people together are in decline. Think of the role that religious congregations once played in nurturing deep and long lasting friendships. As a former parish minister, I have seen the role a healthy congregation can play in peoples’ lives. Religious affiliation is dropping like a rock, especially among the young. (The combination of reactionary politics and sexual abuse is helping accelerate the decline of religious participation.) We are becoming like western Europe, where churches draw more tourists than worshippers. Other voluntary associations like clubs and lodges are also in rapid decline. 

So What?

We human beings are hard wired for relationships. We need one another. Without one another we feel empty and lost. 

The longing to be known, seen, valued and loved is so fundamental that we will seek connection. In a recent article New York Times columnist David Brooks described grassroots efforts to create community he observes across the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/18/opinion/culture-compassion.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage). 

While Brooks is encouraged by the examples of people building community, I am less optimistic (I hope I am wrong). What is missing for me are the institutional foundations. Religious organizations and groups like lodges and volunteer groups like Kiwanis and Rotary provide continuity, structure and identity. Startup local groups are great, but they can’t do that. New forms are waiting to be created. 

There is a values piece to this, too. Individualism is the spiritual disease of our time. We can see that clearly now. I suspect that, as we learn to value relationships and community that we will need to learn to give up some freedom, some mobility, and even some affluence. 

I don’t know what the new forms of community will look like. I would love to hear what others are seeing that gives them hope. 

4 thoughts on “The loneliness epidemic”

  1. I feel so blessed to be part of a thriving UU congregation, where, in addition to working on justice issues, we strive to build community and strong relationships, talk about big ideas, and deepen our experience of being human. Thank you for connecting with us in this way, Peter. I’ve missed you! We aren’t personally acquainted, but I followed you closely when you were UUA president.

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    1. Great blog, Peter. “Individualism is the spiritual disease of our time…” is so true and would be a great next topic. It is so ingrained in Americans. Can it be overcome? Is it a result of our deeply consumeristic culture? I see it even in church.

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  2. We used to belong to tribes or groups of people “like” ourselves. It led and leads to majority groups picking on minority groups. Culturally, we don’t seem to know how to get the majorities to be fair to others. I find that often I can join a group formed around a specific set of common interests, and so long as only those interests are discussed there everyone is supportive and friendly. This is assisted by the internet and so we can find people who are interested all over the world more easily in sometimes obscure areas of interest. But let some unrelated thing, like an opening prayer or a MAGA hat come up in a way that reveals some of us are on opposite “sides” of an important issue and it can tear the group apart or force the minority into uncomfortable feelings that they don’t belong in this group anymore. Church congregations can be a part of this, many were criticized for years as being social clubs for people who thought the same (or would pretend to). People who went used to think of “their” church as “their” church and feel at home there. Often driven by the need to grow and replace dying members, many have changed to attract newcomers in ways that make them no longer feel comfortable or safe like “home”, and long time members sometimes see so much change that it doesn’t feel like “their” church any more – they drift off. Other examples are when the Susan B Komen foundation for breast cancer research started attacking Planned Parenthood, they lost people who had supported them for decades and won’t ever go back. Or periodically when the Catholics want to control where the United Way funds go or else take their marbles and go home, some people stop supporting the United Way because it is no longer United. In the workplace, once upon a time at the start of my career one expected to finally get a good job with a big established company and then keep on working there until retirement. You made friends there, some people met spouses there. You worked as a tribe to try and “kill the competition” and some places folded while others thrived. Employees were winners or losers as a group, not as individuals. It sucked to be a loser, but you had company and weren’t so lonely about it. Now, there is no loyalty, and for many of us there is not even any employment – its all temporary and contract work. When your contract is up and you get booted out, nobody cares but you. So my point is that there are no more stable organizations or groups to join, where you can feel at home and comfortable around people who are “of” your tribe. Now you have to build a patchwork network of people who share this interest or that concern and try to not find out how horrible their politics and religious beliefs are in order to be able to get along. It means we are all somewhat living in the closet now, seldom able to both be ourselves and be in a group, and feeling lonely.

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  3. I’m finding it a challenge as I am 45 minutes from my UU to make local friends. I have no wisdom to add accept gratitude for UU members who are willing to drive 1 hour plus to help me. I’ve thought of starting a local book club but haven’t done it . Ideally someone else would start one that I could join.

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