The Lonely American


Sean Posey | Society & Culture | Commentary | October 12th, 2018



In 2015, psychotherapist Traci Ruble started a "community listening project" in San Francisco dubbed "Sidewalk Talk." The project sends trained volunteers to meet strangers on the street and listen to them discuss their problems and concerns. In a promotional video, Ruble is shown with her fellow volunteers, asking people if they'd like to sit for a talk. "You want to be listened to? It feels good!" Sidewalk Talk has apparently caught on and is now in 29 cities across the country.

Are there large numbers of Americans so bereft of friends and confidants that they have only strangers in the street to confide in? There apparently are. New studies are showing that Americans are increasingly lonely, isolated, and unhappy. Unmoored from one another and from a (fading) sense of community. More and more of our fellow citizens are going through life alone. This has devastating consequences for individual health and portends a troubled future for the American experiment.

According to a recent Cigna study involving 20,000 adults, loneliness in America has reached "epidemic proportions." "Most Americans," the report states, "are now considered lonely." When asked how often they feel like no one knows them well, 54 percent responded that they sometimes or always feel that way. Nearly half of respondents report feeling sometimes or always alone. The numbers are even more disturbing when broken down:

"We also see that roughly one in four respondents rarely/never feel as though there are people who really understand them (27%), that they belong to a group of friends (27%), can find companionship when they want it (24%), or again feel as though they have a lot in common with others (25%)." Only 53 percent of American have daily "meaningful in-person social interactions," according to Cigna.

Loneliness and social isolation, both "actual and perceived," have direct consequences on one's health, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. The effects of loneliness on mortality are the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which makes prolonged loneliness a bigger individual health risk than obesity.

Loneliness is also connected, perhaps not surprisingly, to mental disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health , nearly one in five adults have a mental health condition. Mental health issues are now one of the fastest growing causes of long-term absences from work. More disturbing still is the connection between loneliness and suicide, which recently hit a 30-year high in America. Even the opioid crisis, a main contributor to the country's declining life expectancy, has been connected to the loneliness epidemic. These deaths are increasingly classified by researchers and the media as "deaths of despair."

The World Happiness Report 2017, compiled by a group of independent experts for the United Nations, recently delivered even more bad news for Americans. The introduction to the report (written by John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs) states "Happiness is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy."

The top countries on the list rank highly on six key factors, the report explains: "healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations)." Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland are the happiest nations. The US, on the other hand, finished in 19th place. Rising levels of corruption and "declining social support" are listed among the primary reasons for America's dismal placing.

While the phenomena of decreasing happiness and increasing loneliness are finally getting notice, much of the blame is often placed on recent developments in the country's history, including the rise of neoliberalism (understandable) and the election of Donald Trump as president (equally understandable). However, historical roots and recent developments alike seem to constitute important elements of the country's failure to develop a meaningful sense of community and attachment among its citizenry.

American culture is often described - rightly - as highly individualistic. Despite the Puritans and their quest for " a city upon a hill," as John Winthrop so memorably put it, the first immigrants to the New World often arrived seeking material, not spiritual, prosperity. "Even in the sixteenth century," writes historian Leo Marx, "the American countryside was the object of something like a calculated real estate promotion." This was a "business civilization," as historian Morris Berman refers to it (something Calvin Coolidge echoed during the 1920s when he said, "The business of America is business").

The peerless observer Alexis de Tocqueville saw this during his travels through the country in 1831. While de Tocqueville admired much of the American character, he understood the downside of the relentless individualism that permeated every aspect of social and cultural life: "They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habits of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands."

Americans proved to be relentless seekers; first moving beyond the Royal Proclamation line that the British issued to separate their colonies from Indian lands; and then, finally, fulfilling "Manifest Destiny" and closing the frontier in the 19th century. The existence of the frontier in American life nurtured a "dominant individualism," according to historian Frederick Jackson Turner - one that failed to disappear with the frontier itself.

War, however, proved to be a force for increasing civic mindedness, and it provided a boon for voluntary associations - trends that no doubt helped combat the social isolation which certainly accompanied the settling of the country. According to historian Theda Skocpol, the five largest civic associations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries formed between 1864 and 1868.

Robert Putnam found similar evidence for an increase in civic mindedness among the generation shaped by World War II. In the seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Putnam calls the generation that fought the war the "long civic generation," also known as the "Greatest Generation." According to the Cigna study, they're the generation least affected by the epidemic of loneliness. On the other hand, Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2010) reported the highest levels of loneliness. The civic connectedness and civic mindedness of the Greatest Generation simply did not last. "The [generational] changes are probably part of a larger societal shift toward individual and material values and away from communal values," Putnam writes in Bowling Alone.

There's evidence to support his assertion. In Bowling Alone, Putnam cites a Roper study from 1972 that asked adults to identify essential elements of "the good life." Approximately 38 percent chose "a lot of money," but an equal percentage chose "a job that contributes to the welfare of society." By 1996, the percentage of people who chose making a lot of money had risen to 63 percent. According to current research, 71 percent of millennials place a similar emphasis on making money.

But much like other Americans, outcomes for the wealthy compare poorly to those of their peers in other countries. For example, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of the American Psychological Association, the "richest, healthiest Americans" are as a sick as the poorest citizens in Britain. What's the reason? The study's author, Sir Michael Marmot of University College London Medical School, gives two reasons: Americans worker longer hours, are more stressed than their counterparts in other wealthy democracies, and Americans are apparently more likely to feel "friendless and isolated."

This pervading sense of loneliness and disconnection, while felt particularly by the young, cuts across class, gender and race, according to Cigna. The rise of social media is sometimes blamed for an increase in feelings of loneliness and isolation, but its use did not figure as a major cause of loneliness in the study.

For much of the past century, some American artists and intellectuals have pointed fingers at the country's culture - or what passes for culture - as being at the root of societal anomie. In 1950, playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder stated that a lack of a codification of ideals was making American life difficult to process. Americans, he said, were always on the move - a "very un-European" manner of life.

Famed sociologist Philip Slater delivered perhaps one of the most pointed critiques of American life in his 1970 book, The Pursuit of Loneliness. He declared the human desire for engagement, community, and yes, dependence, were frustrated at every turn by American life. "Americans have created a society in which they are automatic nobodies," he writes, "since no one has any stable place or enduring connection."

And it hasn't only been liberals who have echoed such criticisms. Michael Hendrix writes in the National Review, "Americans conceive of themselves as individuals isolated from others in such a way that it becomes an imperative for them to form their own meaning for their own lives." Clearly, many Americans aren't forming a meaning for their own lives, at least not alone. The dismal statistics tell us as much. But as we have seen - with some exceptions - this is a problem as old as America itself. A country where individuals are adrift and leading lives without meaningful, connective and nourishing attachments is a country with a grim future indeed. And the problem is now accelerating, as levels of loneliness and disconnection rise among the millennials and Generation Z.

How will the country solve its most vexing problems when Americans are no longer capable of holding onto even the most elementary attachments to one another and their surrounding communities? We might find out, too late, that a society of atomized individuals is no society at all.