In the United States friendship is on the decline. Since 1990, the percentage of Americans who report having less than three close friends has doubled, from 16% to 32%. The share who report having no close friends at all has gone from 3% to 12%. Put another way, 20 million Americans have begun smoking a pack a day.
The cause of isolation has been my hobby horse for years now. I’m convinced it’s not related to anyone specific thing, as much as people try to pin it on something. Galloway’s list is the tip of the iceberg. Based on my reading lists over the years, I’ve started to compile all the various reasons how and why our society has changed for the lonelier:
- COVID and other contagious illnesses disrupted people’s routines, and may continue to do so for many.
- Increasing political polarization, mostly caused by algorithms. Similarly, political discussions are exhausting and those that are “deep” into it can be a turn-off for people who don’t like the conflict.
- Fewer random encounters in “third places” like malls, theaters, offices, etc.
- Fewer third places. I’m reminded of this as most libraries become less places to work or read and more about delivering “social services” and “resources”.
- The increasing risk of offending or “harming” someone. I’m sure it’s impossible to survey, but most office workers likely fear talking to someone of the opposite race, gender, etc. for fear of offending them. If that sounds “fragile”, even if they’re trying they’re probably thinking and parsing each word, which is mentally taxing for anyone.
- Social media and the rise of the Internet to train people to isolate online
- It took 30 years for society to curb smoking after realizing it causes cancer. Even when we knew it caused cancer, it still took forever. How long will it take for us to realize social media is just as mentally harmful?
- Our insatiable desire to seek more thrilling, salacious, interesting, and exciting experiences (again, driven largely by algorithms. e.g. at YouTube)
- Cities have grown so large and sprawl-y they exceed Dunbar’s Number, even among small neighborhoods if you’re lucky to even live in one.
- City design that isolates people into cars, removing street-level contact.
- “TV is not a cause, but probably not a help” as written in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. “It’s unstructured leisure that comes at the expense of all other leisure. Heavy viewing perpetuates itself.” This started in the 1950s with the presence of TVs in bars, pubs, bowling alleys, etc.
- The collapse of sport leagues like…bowling.
- The gargantuan increase in costs for exclusive clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, golf clubs, etc. Indy Rotary, as one example, is about $300 a month after dues, lunch, fees, and heavily encouraged donations.
- On the whole, more time spent commuting and shuttling kids around
- A constant desire to compare against others and the bombardment of reminders from people who seemingly have more wealth, fun, adventure, etc. than you. Einstein supposedly said, “Comparison is the end of joy.”
- A desire to do great things has not escaped any of us. John Adams struggled with tobacco and reading “more seriously”. Often wrote banal posts in his journal about weather, tea, meetings, etc. He also frequently failed in as much as the next day after setting his goals. At the age of 20, he said there was so much he wanted to do but life was passing him by.
- An alarming rise in “imposter syndrome”, where you once compared yourself against people in your factory or small town. Sönke Ahrens wrote “…high achievers who have had a taste of vast amounts of knowledge suffer from imposter syndrome, the feeling you aren’t up to the job, even though, of all people, they are.”
- Parkinson’s Law, which in 1957 established, “Every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it, like air fills every corner of a room.” Even though we work, on average, less today than ever before, our brains never get to shut down from thinking about work left to be done.
- A lack of truly beautiful places in our cities and neighborhoods. Wendell Berry wrote, “Wherever ugliness has crept in, we have the first symptoms of exploitation and exhaustion.” I am reminded of this every time I see someone cut down a mature tree for no reason other than a shrug or laziness in not wanting to rake leaves.
- Lack of ability to show emotional vulnerability to people, either because it makes them uncomfortable, makes you feel weak, or otherwise causes awkwardness that could fracture a tenuous-feeling relationship.
- John Gottman wrote, “Yesterday’s feelings influence our ability to keep and maintain relationships today.” Lightning-fast communication means yesterday’s feelings steamroll into today faster than ever.
- Emotional disconnects from family, especially fathers. Due in part to judicial precedents favoring mothers, likelihood of black men to be in jail, and other social factors.
- No one eats dinner together anymore, and if they do, they’re staring at a screen and not each other. Gottman again wrote, “In an hour-long dinner conversations, happily married couples engaged about 100x every 10 minutes vs 65x for divorce-bound couples.”
- Lack of access to nature and truly wild places. National Parks are great, but many Americans live nowhere near even decent small parks. Where I live in Indianapolis most parks are mere glorified medians sandwiched between speeding cars.
- Our diet is crappy. James Howard Kunstler wrote, “America as one big theme park, an endless circle of hamburgers.” If it’s bad for your heart, it’s also bad for your brain.
- Most art, landscapes, buildings, etc. are viewed as mere objects in space — something to sit in the middle of a road, not to gather around and connect relationships.
- Lack of autonomy in our work, lives, and decisions — though this may be getting slightly better as people get to work from home. Covid may have been as much a help here as a hindrance elsewhere.
- Preferences of texting over calls and in-person interaction. Texting is fine, and can be fun, but it’s a poor simulacrum for sensing a person’s tone, thinking, body language, and eyes.
- Sharp levels of education discrepancy between boys and girls, as more girls enter and complete higher education than boys. More alarming when you realize most people make most of their friends in college, which is their last great chance for meeting partners and friends.
- The generational and age gap between an 80-year-old running a local club, group, etc. and a potential 30-year-old member is so vast I don’t see how we overcome it. A 30 and 50-year-old can see eye-to-eye on things. But a 50 year difference? No wonder Rotaries, Lions, SAR, etc. can’t get members. You almost have to age into it as Boomers hang on longer than ever.
- Intramural sports may be available in pockets, but is woefully inadequate given access to facilities and fees.
- Gyms are bifurcated into $10-a-month warehouses where people walk around with headphones and $200-a-month CrossFit boxes for the well financed and geographic elite.
What frustrates me the most about all this is I can’t control any of it. I can control my diet, exercise, and reading habits to my maximum benefit. But despite my best efforts, I can’t get other people to regularly want to do anything. I’ve lost nearly every connection I have beyond scant texting — which I make considerable effort at among people — only to find them scattered across vast distances, unaware or unwilling to put in even less than half the effort to be real, deep, humans.
My current level of interaction with friends, voluntarily by all parties, is now a rough average of 40 minutes a month.
I find myself increasingly trying to train my mind not to need friendship at all. Like a monk choosing celibacy and replacing partnership with God, I feel like I need to replace friendship with others with friendship with myself in hopes of eliminating the mental drain of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.