Parks are lonely places in November, washed in cold gray. The dog and I are the only large, readily visible creatures for miles. But we are together. When there is no “together,” life takes on an unwelcome austerity. And that is happening all over the country.
Loneliness, the media tell us, is epidemic. That could be hype, were there not so many statistics to back it up. In a recent survey, almost half of U.S. adults—nearly double the 1990 percentage—said they have no more than three friends. Ages fifteen to twenty-four, when you live and breathe to hang out with your friends and face the world together? Their time together in person averaged 150 minutes a day in 2003, but by 2020 had dropped almost 70 percent, to just 40 minutes a day.
How did this happen, in a country famous for its clubs and groups and teams, its extraversion, its openhearted chattiness?
Tech. Stranger danger. The dramatic intonations of news anchors reporting horrific crimes 24/7. Overwork and overworry making us cranky, irritable when we have to make nice with someone we do not know. Only old people would rather conduct their business in person; most of the rest of us prefer to make appointments online, use the self-checkout, ask a chatbot for advice. Kids shy away from fresh air and any possibly awkward social interaction—and the interactions are awkward, because nobody gets much practice.
Bottom line, we want control. And who can blame us? What we hear about the world beyond our screens is that it is toxic, germ-laden, plagued by storms and drought and flood and weird malevolent insects, increasingly hostile to life and fast collapsing. What we hear about our own species is that it is ridden with sociopaths, violent extremists, mass shooters, scam artists, hackers, politicians who call us vermin, and political opponents who want us dead.
And so our circles narrow, and our mistrust grows. What does the human body need to be healthy? Lots of fresh air, movement, good food and sleep, relaxation, and play. What does the mind need to stay strong? Friendship, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. Not isolation in front of a screen in a sterile, hermetically sealed, climate-controlled room.
That is one form of loneliness, a sterile, tech-centered, avoidant life. But there are others. The existential loneliness of wondering why we are even here, now that the old props are falling away. The loneliness of anxiety and depression, both rising fast, both sharp enough to slice through the tow ropes friends throw. The loneliness of self-hatred, which can spin 180 degrees into violent retaliation. The mediated loneliness that batters us with images of witty and constantly supportive friends, warm and constantly supportive families, adorable couples and their passionate couplings, holiday celebrations that could be filmed by Hallmark. Fictions, in other words, designed to sell us stuff.
Then there is the political loneliness of feeling cut off from half the country, unable to even speak to those who disagree with us, and sinking deeper into our own ideology, where we toss around sophomoric insults about our enemies. (In civilized, affectionate debates, we may not agree, may not even inch toward compromise, but we soften one another’s sharp edges and make caricature more difficult.)
Finally, there is the most obvious loneliness of all: failed or absent relationships, at a time when many have partnered up and retreated into separate households. I see the pain daily.
One friend just lost her father, and she feels like she is drifting. Unmarried, she stayed a daughter longer than most, and did it better—but now who is she?
Another friend has looked for love for two decades, falling too fast and burning too hot. Another did love, but herself more, and the marriage ended in tragedy, and now she cannot fathom why she is alone.
One has never loved, until lately, and even now only from afar; she is not sure what built the walls, and she is not sure—now that, too late, they have toppled—who she is meant to love, and how.
Yet another loved and lost, and in her loneliness, she shakes; this brave woman who dared anything is suddenly afraid of the world.
Nobody can wave a magic wand and find everyone they love the right romantic partner. Tinder is no help. But if someone is surrounded by love and support, the quest, however disheartening, will not steal their soul.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wants us to prioritize building social connections with the kind of zeal that launched public health campaigns about the dangers of smoking, drug use, and obesity. That is not as touchy-feely as it sounds; loneliness increases the risks not just of depression and anxiety but of heart disease, strokes, dementia (by 50 percent!), and early death.
Earlier this year, Murthy launched a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. I was prepared to roll my eyes; this is the sort of bureaucratic initiative that cannot be accomplished with a bulleted list. Except, the suggestions on that list are solid. Design public places—parks, libraries, playgrounds—that draw people together. Get a grip on technology so it is not designed to attract us and suck us in greedily. Tug doctors and nurses away from their screens and encourage them to notice signs of loneliness and intervene. Use accessible public transportation and paid family leave to let families be together more often and longer. Study what brings people together and makes real conversation possible. Prioritize connection.
Other cultures (smaller scale, less acquisitive, with more shared ideals and traditions) do all this naturally. We are like a rowdy group of delinquents who will have to be hammered into civility, cooperation, and a sense of the common good. The intrigue of the lone hacker, the Silicon Valley dude in black t-shirt who masters the universe by spending eighteen hours a day in front of a screen, is only the latest incarnation of the lone cowboy, the renegade hero. Even when we were sociable, those lives fascinated us, because they held what seemed like power.
In society, every time you meet a stranger, you have to give up some power. You cannot predict who they really are or what they will say to you or how they will react to you. If you are alone, you have to reach out again and again to fill your life with meaningful connections. Hanging out with friends, you have to navigate petty squabbles, envy, irritation, boredom, differences of need and opinion. In a family, you are tied to people for life, and you care more than you want to about disappointing them. In a marriage, you have to decide how to be together, amicably and sustainably, and reassess that every day. It is all terribly hard work. But it is nowhere near as hard as the alternative.
Loneliness, says Murthy, is “like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing.”
We are as social as elephants, who cannot sleep alone when they are orphaned. The bonds we form with one another keep us human. Often they are what keep us alive.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.