Sunday, May 5, 2019

Only the Lonely


We are in an epidemic. No, not the opioid epidemic but a loneliness epidemic. Several recent studies have revealed that nearly half of Americans (46 percent) sometimes or always feel lonely. And the youngest adults among us (18-22 years) are the loneliest group of all.

Why are we so lonely?

There are many factors, but here are a few that I think are contributing to making us lonelier than ever.

The first thing is cell phones. Several years ago, my youngest son had a job interview in State College, and I tagged along to spend the afternoon walking the campus and enjoying the fall leaves while he went on the interview. Afterward, I met him on College Avenue, which separates the business district from the Penn State campus. A stone wall runs along the campus side. As we walked past the wall to our car, I noticed that there must have been 40 students sitting on the wall waiting for the university bus and every single one of them was either wearing headphones or was bent over engrossed in a cell phone. No one was talking. It’s no wonder then that another study released last month showed that 51 percent of young Americans are single or don’t have a romantic partner—more than any other time.

Another reason I believe is because of changing family life. I was one of four children, and I slept in a double bed with my sister until I left home to get married. Yeah, we often brawled over who was hogging the covers, but we weren’t lonely! Today, families are having fewer children, and the ones that do believe each child must have their own room. Also, I heard someone give a talk on loneliness recently, and he observed how today it is the norm for people to grow up and move away from their family. He said that throughout history, people tended to settle around their family because it provided support and security, only leaving for dire circumstances such as war or poverty. It’s only been during the last few decades that people willingly move away from the people who know them, love them and care about them to live where no one knows them, loves them or cares about them. And then we wonder why we’re lonely!

I’m sure there are other reasons for the loneliness epidemic from the decline in religious affiliations to our fractured culture, but in the interest of space, here is my final reason. We are too busy to connect with others. In 2000, Robert D. Putnam wrote the book Bowling Alone, which detailed the collapse of our communities. The title derives from the fact that during the first-half of the last century, most people belonged to a bowling league, and now, no one does. But it’s not just bowling; all types of social groups have suffered too as well as civic organizations. Even the frequency of family dinners has declined tremendously. And Putnam gives one startling trend from his research to illustrate how our frenzied lives are isolating us. He observed that for every ten minutes a person commutes, all forms of their social interaction are reduced by 10 percent.

It’s hard to buck trends, but maybe if we become miserable enough in our loneliness, we will make some changes and, once again, begin to reach out to others. If you are looking to connect, put down the phone, volunteer, join a church or synagogue, host a family dinner, start a book club or maybe even dig out your bowling shoes and hit the lanes. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Northern Connection magazine.