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.
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.