Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Can You Live Alone and Be Happy?

Self-centeredness gives the illusion of freedom.

A social phenomenon is sweeping the world. From Kenya to the UK, people are living alone in increasing numbers. These aren't temporary situations, like students or recent graduates. In fact, those living alone are more likely to remain in that situation than any other group except married couples.

In the US, 28% of all households are people living alone. Worldwide, more people are living alone than at any other time in history. Living alone appears to be tied to a market economy (people move around in the pursuit of better jobs), the welfare state (growing old is no longer a sentence to poverty without children to support you) and the women's movement (there is less need to be dependent upon men for support).

Does this mean that we are headed down the path where the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby is the universal anthem: All those lonely people/Where did they all come from? Not at all, says sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

Klinenberg's research doesn't turn up lonely people or social isolates. He writes that "people who live alone compensate by becoming more socially active than those who live with others and that cities with high numbers of singletons enjoy a thriving public culture."

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In his March 12 Time magazine article he writes, "Living alone allows us to do what we want, when we want, on our own terms. It liberates us from the constraints of a domestic partner's needs and demands and permits us to focus on ourselves."

He states: "After all, living alone serves a purpose: it helps us pursue sacred modern values-individual freedom, personal control and self-realization-that carry us from adolescence to our final days."

So living alone doesn't mean that people are lonely or unhappy; neither does it mean that people are less social. But it may mean that people are more self-centered and therefore less concerned about larger social issues.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which studied attitudes over a 40-year span, found that today's young Americans are less concerned about the environment than older generations. One frustrated environmentalist said about her peers, ""I just think our generation seems fairly narcissistic-and we seem to have the shortest attention span."

Living alone is part of a pattern of self-realization that easily gets translated into indifference. If you need to think about another's needs on a regular basis, as you do when you live with someone else, then your thinking is stretched beyond the present moment. You can't live successfully with another person with a short attention span. You must pay attention when you are a partner,

The sacred modern values, as identified by Klinenberg, serve successful individuals well, in the short-run. In the long run, they are a disaster, unless tempered with social responsibility, the recognition that social forces shape our lives as a matter of luck, and that self-realization matures in a social setting.

Living alone "liberates from the constraints of a domestic partner's needs and demands," as though there was something wrong with limits or that others don't have legitimate claims upon us. But as George Eliot wrote, "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending."

Boundedness gives shape to life. Self-centeredness gives the illusion of freedom.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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