The Loneliness Panic

Americans actually are not more isolated than ever

Posted Jun 15, 2013

Do you remember the panic, instigated in 2006, over how dramatically more isolated Americans had become? It was fed by a study supposedly showing that over the course of two decades, the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important matters had shrunk from three to two, and that social isolation had more than doubled.

The findings generated a tsunami of angst-ridden stories. The “fact” of the Isolated American made it into popular books and academic theories, and became, to many, part of the accepted wisdom about the disconnected nature of contemporary American life.

Some sociologists, such as Claude Fischer, were immediately skeptical of the claims. Just last month, the American Sociological Review published research showing that Americans were not in fact becoming more isolated. They only looked that way because of problems with the survey methodology and the people asking the questions. Some of the interviewers just weren’t very skilled or motivated, and got tired of asking all those questions. By the time they got to the key part of the survey asking people to name their confidants, some may not have bothered to ask the question at all and just reported that the participants didn’t have any confidants.

No amount of corrective science, though, is going to fully calm the loneliness panic that is gripping contemporary media. Real loneliness is a problem and should be taken seriously. But it is also a problem likely to be exaggerated because of other big societal changes that have people on edge. They include the growing number of people who are living alone and the exponentially greater possibilities that technology has offered us for communicating with people without seeing them or even hearing their voices.

An example of a recent panic-inducing headline appeared in The New Republic:  “The lethality of loneliness.” The tease for the story by Judith Shulevitz was, “We now know how it can ravage our body and brain.”

Are you cowering yet?

Despite the ominous headline, the article was in many ways quite thoughtful and reasonable. At the outset, Shulevitz makes it clear that “real loneliness” is something very specific: (The “she” in this excerpt is psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.)

“Real loneliness,” as she called it, is not what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. Nor is “real loneliness” the happy solitude of the productive artist or the passing irritation of being cooped up with the flu while all your friends go off on some adventure. It’s not being dissatisfied with your companion of the moment—your friend or lover or even spouse— unless you chronically find yourself in that situation… Fromm-Reichmann even distinguished “real loneliness” from mourning, since the well-adjusted eventually get over that, and from depression, which may be a symptom of loneliness but is rarely the cause. Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy.”

Shulevitz does not even make the popular but false claim that single people are lonelier than married people, so kudos to her for that.

The alarm in her article comes from her discovery of research showing that loneliness “can reach into our bodies and rearrange our cells and genes.” To wit,

“Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

After pages and pages of engaging reporting, it is time to assign some blame. Guess who gets it? Single mothers!

“As nearly half of all marriages continue to end in divorce, as marriage itself floats further out of reach for the undereducated and financially strapped, childhood has become a more solitary and chaotic experience. Single mothers don’t have a lot of time to spend with their children, nor, in most cases, money for emotionally enriching social activities.”

The economist James Heckman is quoted as telling Shulevitz: “Mothers matter, and mothering is in short supply.”

The story generated lots of “likes” and plenty of discussion. Ross Douthat, for one, can always be counted on for a headline such as “All the lonely people.”

And yet, increasingly, another narrative seems to be growing in popularity. That counterpoint is announced by articles with titles such as “Seeking solitude” and “Desert silence.” Apparently, we are not all rushing desperately into the arms of other people.

When we get all in a tizzy over what are proclaimed to be record levels of isolation and loneliness, we often neglect three other, perhaps equally important fundamentals about human nature:

  1. Too much togetherness can also be problematic.
  2. Just about all contemporary adults want both sociability and solitude – that is, meaningful connections and time alone.
  3. The optimal mix of time together and time alone is different for different people, and maybe even for the same people at different points in time.

Reference: Paik, A., & Sanchagrin, K. (2013). Social isolation in America: An artifact. American Sociological Review, 78, 339-360.