by Jeff Polet
One of the first lessons we learn in the Bible is that it is not good for man to be alone. This recent essay in the New York Times caught my attention because I think the author — the Surgeon General of the US — identifies what I regard as one of the most serious crises in America today: an epidemic of loneliness.
At any moment, about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. This includes introverts and extroverts, rich and poor, and younger and older Americans. Sometimes loneliness is set off by the loss of a loved one or a job, a move to a new city, or health or financial difficulties — or a once-in-a-century pandemic.
We talk a lot on this site about civic friendship, but it is difficult to see how we might engage in civic friendship when we demonstrate a declining capacity for any friendship. From this report:
Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends. Today, that number has been cut in half. Slightly more than one in four (27 percent) men have six or more close friends today. Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.
Women have witnessed a friendship decline too, but it has been far less pronounced. In 1990, roughly four in ten (41 percent) women said they had six or more close friends, compared to 24 percent today. Ten percent of women reporting having no close friends.
Partly as a response to his own crisis, the Surgeon General’s office released this report on loneliness and isolation and what might be done about it. But it is difficult to offer solutions when you haven’t correctly identified causes, and I think the referenced reports miss the boat on the real reasons we are so lonely. As a result, I find their recommendations not particularly helpful (“You don’t have enough friends? You should make some more friends.”)
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French purveyor of American democracy, wrote his observations and analysis under a sense of dread that democracy would typically produce lonely people. He reasoned that democracy, by elevating the needs and desires of the individual, would act as a solvent on social relations, corroding the links that would otherwise bind us together. Those links were strong and sure in the hierarchical chain of aristocratic cultures, but once broken by democracy could not be reforged because aristocracy was the one thing democracies would not tolerate. So the forged links of loyalty and obligation that bound aristocratic societies together were now replaced by the thin threads of calculation and negotiation between sovereign rights-bearing individuals, and such threads could be easily severed and we become easily frayed. We engage others on our terms or not at all. The result, Tocqueville wrote, is that we become “more than kings and less than men.”
But I would not for that recommend a return to an aristocratic age nor forget democracy’s advantages. I’m saying that a certain amount of loneliness is built into the democratic condition and can only be mollified by association with one another; but free association is harder work for us because the democratic retreat into the self means that the outward-facing exertions required by association prove to be too much for many people to bear. So they retreat even further inwardly. Recall that the term introversion wasn’t invented until the 1920’s, when it first became a meaningful concept within a particular social context. The fact that the term wasn’t needed before then may well be because it didn’t refer to anything real.
A related cause of our loneliness is hypermobility, one response to which is our tendency to warehouse “inconvenient” populations: in prisons, in schools, in daycare centers, and in homes for the elderly. And these are the places where the most intense loneliness is experienced precisely because the inhabitants are separated from those who are closest to them. Encouraging young people to move away from the places of their birth to places where “they can make something of themselves” also moves them away from the sheltering canopy of lifelong relationships; apart from the places where they are seen and known and they now become an anonymous part of a madding crowd, and often in turn sublimate their loneliness into tribalism or ideological fervor.
The reports do correctly identify the use of screen-based technologies as serious contributors to the epidemic. My own view is that if you want to improve the lives of Americans overnight the best thing you could do is take away their phones. It’s too much to hope that we might voluntarily give them up.
- How have your relationships been affected by the cell phone? How about work, or life in general? If negatively, why don’t you give it up?
- Has your number of friends increased or decreased in the last ten years? How has the political environment affected your friendships? Is your politics more important to you than your friendships?
- Does democracy in fact exacerbate the tendencies toward separation from our fellows? What price do we pay for personal autonomy?