The Loneliness Scare

Fischer_37.3_subwayClaude S. Fischer in Boston Review:

Headlines in America’s newspaper of record imply that if you’re not feeling lonely, you may be the lonely exception: “Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace”; “Alone in the Vast Wasteland”; and “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier.” Add books such as Bowling Alone, The Lonely American, and Alone Together, and you might think that there is an epidemic of loneliness.

An endemic epidemic, perhaps, because we have received such diagnoses for generations. The 1950s—the era of large families, crowded churches, and schmoozing suburbanites—brought us hand-wringing books such as Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society and the best-selling The Lonely Crowd, which landed author David Reisman on the cover of Time magazine. About a half-century before that, policymakers were worrying about the loneliness of America’s farmers, and observers were attributing a rising suicide rate to the loneliness of immigrants or to modernity in general. And so on, ever back in time. Noted historian Page Smith described colonial Americans’ “cosmic loneliness” and the upset stomachs and alcoholism that resulted. Americans have either been getting lonelier since time immemorial or worrying about it since then.

The latter is more likely. Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.