March 20, 2019

The Loneliness Epidemic

“Why are so many young people lonely?
Americans are getting married and having children later in life; there are now more single people in the U.S. than at any time in the past 140 years. Not being part of a regular workplace also plays a role, with freelancers and “gig economy” workers reporting higher levels of loneliness. And despite seemingly infinite opportunities to connect online, social media may actually be making the problem worse. Scrolling through an endless stream of curated photos of parties, vacations, family gatherings, and weddings may increase feelings of being left out or dissatisfaction with one’s own life. In one study of Americans ages 19 to 32, the top 25 percent of social media users were twice as likely to report feeling lonely as the people using it least. Some researchers say loneliness began becoming widespread long before the internet, when the Industrial Revolution broke up tightly knit agricultural communities. “I do think it speaks to one of the dilemmas of modern, mobile society,” said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College. “As we gain the freedom to become whatever we want to be, we’ve lost the sense of belonging.”

Alone, angry — and intensely partisan
Some researchers believe that America’s increasingly polarized politics — and the partisan viciousness on social media — may be at least partly the product of increasing loneliness. Psychiatrists Richard S. Schwartz and Dr. Jacqueline Olds describe loneliness as the “elephant in the room” of American politics. Social isolation, they say, makes people less empathetic and more likely to view the world in terms of “us” and “them.” “I think comparing notes in a civil way is the antidote to a polarized society in which we don’t understand a point of view other than our own,” Olds says. “If we are so lonely that we have no one to compare notes with, we tend to become more polarized.” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska believes that Americans are turning to political tribalism for the sense of community they used to get from simple connection to those around them. “The local, human relationships that anchored political talk have shriveled up,” Sasse writes in his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal. “Alienated from each other, and uprooted from places we can call home, we’re reduced to shrieking.””

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