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The Loneliness Epidemic and What We Can Do About It

It's our need to feel special.

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A group of about 20 men — all fathers in their 30s and 40s — gathered at a home in Oakland, California, a month ago to talk fatherhood. Alarmingly, when asked how many of them had “real friends” — confidantes with whom they could talk honestly and vulnerably about life on a regular basis, through good times and bad — only two raised their hands.

It might be tempting to interpret this sense of isolation as a crisis of masculinity in the U.S. But the available research suggests that loneliness is a problem that supersedes gender. In a revealing sociological study, a large percentage of Americans report having shrinking networks and fewer relationships. The average American has only one close confidante, the same study showed. And the leading reason people seek out counseling is loneliness. Robert Putnam's popular book Bowling Alone brought this epidemic into greater awareness for the general public.

The Reason We're Lonely

Why do so many Americans feel disconnected from each other? Many critics have blamed social media and smartphones. But online social platforms often help us feel more connected to our communities — not less. The larger issue lies with Americans’ individualistic ideology.

Americans like to think of themselves as independent, unique, and autonomous, as a classic study by Stanford psychology professor Hazel Markus showed. (It's described in her book Clash: How to Thrive in a Multicultural World.) Like other individualistic cultures, mostly in Western Europe, but also in some immigrant cultures, Americans want to stand out.

This individualistic mind-set is in part the result of the Protestant work ethic, which heavily influenced U.S. culture with the idea that every man has to prove his own worth. Similar ideas were also emphasized by American transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson claimed that it is the job of individuals to find their own voice, path, and life calling. “Be yourself,” he wrote, “no best imitator of another, but your best self.” Immigrant culture also influenced American individualism, as our ancestors strove to forge their own path toward the American Dream.

Individualism in the U.S. can differ by socioeconomic level. Working-class Americans tend to act more collectivistically, according to research by Kellogg School of Management professor Nicole Stephens. For example, people of higher economic status tend to be more independent, whereas poorer people often tend to be more collectivistic. But in general, Americans pride themselves on their independence, on their ability to succeed and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Our quest for independence may also be responsible for the current crisis of loneliness. We know from decades of research (described in our book, The Happiness Track) that our greatest need — after food and shelter — is social connection. From birth through old age, we need to feel that we belong. Yet we can easily become isolated from each other. Some of us get competitive when we compare ourselves with our peers; others get trapped in 12-hour work days or scatter across the country in the quest for achievement. We drown in workaholism and the busyness of life, then numb ourselves with alcohol and Netflix. Yet social connection is what we all desperately want — that sense of deep and powerful intimacy, whether with a romantic partner or a friend.

What We Can Do

As men and women grapple with new definitions and forms of masculinity and femininity, we have a rare opportunity to create new cultural norms around authenticity and vulnerability — the keys to building social connection. As Brené Brown of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work showed so powerfully in her book Daring Greatly, when we allow ourselves to be seen — when we admit our fears or self-doubt, for example — we connect with others and in turn give them permission to be themselves. In sharing our fears and insecurities, we find true relationships.

It took one person at that Oakland men’s group admitting his vulnerabilities for everyone to suddenly open up. Thanks to this man’s courage, which at first led to an awkward silence, everyone else started to let loose, bonding with each other authentically. Parenthood is hard, it became clear — as is trying to balance being a good father and a good partner. In order to bond, they had to admit that they didn’t have everything under control all on their own; they needed each other.

Everyone has challenges in life, and many of those same difficulties are shared by the people around us. When we stop trying to emphasize what makes us different from, and better than, everyone else, and instead focus on what we all have in common, we feel a lot less alone.

For more, see The Happiness Track (HarperOne 2016), now in paperback!

This article was co-written by Emma Seppälä and Peter Sims. Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project, and author of The Happiness Track. Peter Sims is founder & CEO of Parliament, Inc. and author of Little Bets.

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