Why Are We So Lonely? (Part 2)

The Andy Griffith Show is a classic American sitcom about a widower sheriff and his young son who live in the small, idyllic town of Mayberry, North Carolina. The show focuses on the colorful residents of Mayberry and their humorous antics. Characters like Barney Fife, Gomer Pyle, and Ernest T. Bass are hilarious and unforgettable.

For better or worse, everyone knows everyone in this town, and when someone gets into trouble, word spreads like wildfire through the neighborhood grapevine. The close-knit nature of the town provides ample fodder for comical situations, but there are plenty of touching moments where neighbors support one another and care for one another in profound ways. While they often gossip behind each other’s backs, they also rush to the rescue of those in need.

Loneliness-Blog-Header-part 2 In fact, this warm neighborliness has made Mayberry something of a metaphor for an ideal community. Everyone’s lives are intertwined, and despite all the comedy, nothing bad ever really happens. Sheriff Andy has very little policing to do as a fundamental goodness pervades Mayberry.

While the world of Mayberry may seem hopelessly distant from real life, it wasn’t at one time. Many elderly men and women fondly remember the very real small town life that once defined America. And while there were always criminals and less than savory members of society, there was also a trust built on genuine neighborliness that pervaded small town life.

What Happened to Mayberry?

In the previous post in this series, we discussed the epidemic of loneliness, and how social isolation affects millions in America. We also looked at the mounting body of research demonstrating how our isolation can have serious emotional and physical consequences and, in some extreme cases, can even be deadly.

You may be wondering, however, how we came to be so lonely. How could we go from a society not that unlike Mayberry, to one in which the majority of Americans has no close friends to rely on? What causes loneliness? While the causes of chronic isolation are many, in this post I’d like to examine a few of the more prominent causes of loneliness.

A Breakdown of Community Involvement

One of the prominent causes of loneliness is, not surprisingly, the breakdown of community involvement. Americans are withdrawing from real-life social relationships at an alarming rate.

Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has written extensively on the breakdown of social relationships, most famously in his book Bowling Alone. In the book, which compiles data from over 500,000 interviews, Putnam writes about how many Americans once participated in any number of social activities on a regular basis, such as choir, volunteer groups, sports teams, or even family dinner.

Bowling is one example Putnam cites of a common social activity. Bowling alleys across the country used to be packed on Friday nights with competitive teams made up of neighbors who knew one another. But at some point, this changed, and now, bowling leagues are largely a relic of the past. Today, many Americans bowl alone—a fact that gave Putnam inspiration for the title of his book.

Unfortunately, bowling is but one casualty of our social fragmentation. “In the ten short years between 1985 and 1994,” Putnam writes, “active involvement in community organizations […] fell by 45 percent.” In the past 25 years, participation in meetings for various clubs fell by 58%. Having friends over for dinner fell by 35%. And rates of the once sacred family dinner fell by 43%. Keep in mind, Bowling Alone was first published 18 years ago—long before the advent of smartphones, tablets, and Netflix. These numbers have no doubt only gotten worse as time has passed.

A Commuter Culture

Another factor in the increase of loneliness is commuter culture. In Bowling Alone, Putnam cites research showing that every ten minutes of commuting time reduces all forms of social engagement by 10%.

Many Americans commute long distances on a regular basis, due in large part to the increasing concentration of the population in urban and suburban areas. Where workers once lived in small towns close to their place of employment (or even in an apartment above them), workers now frequently live in suburban areas and commute into the city to work—a process that can take up to two hours a day on congested roads.

More time commuting means less time and less desire to socialize. Add to this the frequent relocation of Americans (36 million moved between 2012 and 2013 alone), and meaningful relationships become nearly impossible to establish or maintain.

A Dependance on Technology

Technology has also significantly impacted our social isolation. Paradoxically, while we are seemingly more connected than ever before, with the average adult Facebook user having 338 friends, we are more isolated than at any time in history. Texting, video chat, and an endless stream of social media posts have become substitutes for real, face-to-face connection. Unfortunately, no matter how many messages we send or likes we get on our posts, it is no substitute for real connection with others.

All satisfying and meaningful relationships require a degree of vulnerability and openness. They require that we give and receive in equal measure. Yet, social media allows us to carefully curate what we reveal to others. We can choose just the right photo or video, sharing only what we think others will find acceptable. This leaves much of our authentic selves hidden and concealed, creating a hunger for real intimacy.

Additionally, real relationships thrive on physical contact, gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice. Technological interactions, no matter how “high definition” they are, always flatten our experience of others. Dr. Catriona Morrison, an experimental psychologist at the University of Leeds in England, explains that “the quality of online communication is impoverished in comparison with the physical, real world face-to-face communication. You often don’t hear someone’s voice and you don’t see any body signals, which we know from traditional psychology are important.”

Moreover, technology is intentionally designed to be addictive, and incidents of internet and gaming addiction are seeing a sharp increase. Even for those who aren’t yet diagnosed addicts, the lures of gaming and the internet are increasingly hard for people to resist. The sight of a couple out to dinner staring at their phones and ignoring each other is all too common. And the more people are addicted to screens, the less interaction they will have with real people, causing a downward spiral of loneliness and isolation.

Regardless of What Causes Loneliness, We Long for Intimacy

Regardless of what causes loneliness, one fact is certain: Americans are more isolated than ever before. Our social relationships are fragmented or non-existent, and our longing for intimacy and connection remains in many cases unsatisfied.

In our next few posts, we’ll look at how loneliness and a lack of authentic relationships fuel porn addiction, as well as examine how we can begin to heal and rebuild lost connections. We’ll conclude the series by showing how accountability can be a remedy for loneliness and a path to lasting recovery. Make sure to enter your email below and we’ll send you the blogs for this series as they’re published.

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