Why we are lonely
It's not just a matter of 'putting yourself out there'
The last time I addressed the question of loneliness in this space it was to address a survey suggesting that 30 percent of American millennials said that they felt lonely; one in five even claimed to have no friends. Studies from earlier this year suggest that the problem is even more pervasive: 60-some percent of adults in this country report feeling lonely, and data suggests that these figures are trending upward. Even back in 2017, the former surgeon general Vivek Murthy was calling loneliness an "epidemic." This was before the lockdowns.
Why are Americans so lonely? It is easy to tell just-so stories here, with varying degrees of plausibility. Workplace culture clearly has something to do with it. Ditto social media, heavier use of which generally tracks with increased feelings of loneliness. (The opposite is also true: people who spend less time sharing pictures of their meals with strangers online are less lonely.) Men are lonelier than women, and the very young are lonelier than people in other age groups.
For decades now Robert Putnam and other social scientists have been talking about the decline of group social activities. This trend — assuming we are still headed in the Bowling Alone direction of fewer neighborhood potlucks and decreased club membership, which is not obvious — might be worrying in terms of America’s ability to have a shared public culture. But I doubt that it is contributing to the rise in loneliness. In fact, it seems to be the case that "putting yourself out there" might make loneliness even worse. The Guardian recently profiled Cheryl Webster, a 65-year-old woman in Texas who serves on various community and religious boards, finances the educations of local children, and before the recent lockdown was even hosting regular game nights at her home. None of this has made a difference for Webster, who still finds herself asking heartbreaking questions: "Am I not a very nice person? Or is there something wrong with me?"
Webster is facing what I have come to think of as the Eleanor Rigby problem. Remember the song. It’s not like the title character was just sitting around the house; she was involved in the life of her parish church, was on good terms with the no-doubt affable Irish priest, took volunteering seriously. She clearly saw and talked to lots of people — putting herself out there by any definition. What she was missing was not ordinary human contact but intimacy, truly deep and meaningful emotional connections with other people.
According to researchers quoted in the profile of Webster, this is distressingly common. In fact, people who have an easy time in casual social situations — volunteer work, making small talk at bars or restaurants or in the workplace — might struggle with it more than those of us who are more reticent. The ability to talk about the weather (or share memes about it) with (to employ a depressing neologism) "work friends" does not necessarily translate into the intimate friendships that human beings actually require, the kind in which we are vulnerable and make sacrifices for one another, the absence of which is the true definition of loneliness. The older, plainer word for these feelings is love.
I suspect that the relentless casualization of American life might be one of the biggest obstacles to intimacy. We are vastly more comfortable telling strangers about our lives — where we come from, our line of work, stories about our families, and so on — than people in almost any other country. In France or Germany, people might be less likely to offer empty seats to one another in theaters, but they are more likely to have lifelong intimate friendships than we are.
So much for the causes. What would actual solutions to our intimacy look like? John Cacioppo, the researcher quoted in the Guardian article, thinks that long-term loneliness makes people more anxious and depressed and that this in turn makes them less likely to develop intimate relationships. He suggests using neurosteroids.
This seems to me an unsatisfactory answer, not only because human beings have been capable of loving one another for thousands of years before these pills existed, but also because the therapy Cacioppo is currently prescribing as part of a restricted program costs around $34,000 per prescription. Love might be precious, but it is not expensive.