Why Are More Americans Lonely Today?

Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely.

Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews, where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted that the number of “socially isolated” Americans has doubled since 1985.

These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the number of people living as “unrelated individuals” increased from 6 to 16 percent of all persons. Additionally, about 70 percent of those classified as “unrelated individuals” lived alone.

These compelling findings and the ramifications for American society prompted numerous publications and talk shows to focus on the prevalence of loneliness in America.

It is no accident that the trends regarding social interaction declined sharply in the mid-1960s when “doing your own thing” became vogue.

It would be easy to blame it all on television. In his book "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam cited a dramatic increase in television watching — 5 percent of American households had televisions in 1950 compared with 95 percent in 1960. The pervasiveness of television in family life is remarkable. Many homes have a TV in every room. Putnam provides further reasons for the fragmentation of the family circle and disintegration of family life since the 1960s: Families have 60 percent fewer family picnics and 40 percent fewer family dinners.

Other analysts see longer work days and longer commutes as sources of isolation. The Washington Post estimated that for every 10-minute increase in commuting time, there is a 10-percent decrease in time spent establishing and maintaining social ties. The number of people who indicated that they had a neighbor with whom they could confide has dropped more than half since 1985 — from around 19 percent to about 8 percent. As both the work week and commutes have extended, those people who would ordinarily take the lead in developing and maintaining social structures — the well-educated and higher-earning people — are no longer available to mobilize efforts that build communities.

Even the clergy are feeling it in their personal lives. The just-released Barna report reveals that 60 percent of pastors admit that they “have few close friends.”

In short, with the growth of two-career and single-parent families, people have lost connection with neighbors and have little time or energy for groups or volunteerism.

In an era of instant communication via cell phone and e-mail, some would argue that it doesn’t make sense that people are lonely. Nevertheless, sharing — the antidote to loneliness — is not the same thing as talking. Chattering with another person can simply be a mask, a veil, a barrier, a poor substitute, and a way of distracting ourselves from our loneliness, much in the same way that having the television on in the background is simply a way to keep from feeling alone and lonely.

Previous generations were steeped in Scriptural truths that compelled them to compassion: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” These admonitions are opposite values to the predominant “me” centeredness and self-sufficiency of today’s culture. Those principles, of course, are both unknown and irrelevant to an increasingly unchurched population.

Sharing may be thought of as an event that takes place at a particular time, in a particular place, and in a particular manner. But it springs from a set of attitudes and values. The Scriptures provide a clear understanding of the big picture issues that bear on our loneliness. They teach that human beings are driven by two distinct sets of impulses: our higher nature and our lower. Experience, as well, clearly illustrates that trustworthy friends are rare. Ask Caesar about his friend Brutus. Relatives, too, aren’t always reliable. Ask Abel about his brother Cain. The technology available for communicating has changed, but human propensities have not.

Sharing flourishes when those who are interacting are driven by their higher nature to trust each other and have the capacity for affection and empathy. But trust requires mutual respect and caring, insight and understanding. Perhaps more importantly, trust — and thereby, sharing — involves the indispensable ingredient of vulnerability — a quality sadly lacking when excessive self-reliance and self-sufficiency rule the day.

Indeed, a spirit of independence can be a barrier that impedes sharing. Aloofness is the opposite of all of the favorable ingredients necessary for camaraderie. Likewise, pride –– the desire to be viewed as a “winner,” the determination to be “in control” at all cost –– is a quality that isolates us from each other and keeps us from interdependency with our family and friends.

Finally, the secular humanist view that human existence is disconnected from any higher power and from responsibility for anyone other than ourselves, gives a certain freedom to make one’s own rules, but there is a price to pay for this freedom. Gone is human dignity. Gone is mankind’s special connection to the Author of beauty, truth or goodness. Ultimately, we are “free”; but autonomy is just another way of being alone.

Autonomous individuals have no responsibility to others, just as others have no claim on them. There is no obligation to care about others’ troubles, or even to listen when someone intrudes into another’s priceless personal space in search of a sympathetic hearing of their concerns and difficulties.

In the best of circumstances, sharing is not simple; it is a complex combination of conflicting factors. On the one hand, we have an innate need to be known and understood: the desire to be open and vulnerable with others is too strong in some and too weak in others. On the other hand, we need the freedom to control our lives and particularly our personal or emotional space. But, the self-centeredness that results from a culture dominated by the values of radical individualism is not a pretty thing; it does not contribute to the maturing of individuals, the strengthening of family, the growth of friendship or the development of communities.

As a song, "Let’s Talk about Me" may be good for a laugh, but that attitude doesn’t work as a way of life.