Thursday, February 1, 2024

Will the Lonely Always Be With Us?


I don't care if I sound like a broken record. I will continue to say it: People need each other. Today, though, we live as inward-looking automatons. 

But...perhaps this isn't just a problem of today. Perhaps people have always felt lonely to some degree...

Alan Ehrenhalt, who I believe to be one of the authorities on the subject of social capital and communitarian thought, wrote a fascinating piece in Governing last month. In the past few months, we've experienced a burgeoning output of articles detailing our current "loneliness epidemic." Just about every publication has written about it. The release of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy's report in April of last year certainly sparked a lot of content on the matter. Before that, the Covid-19 pandemic elicited a myriad of op-eds.

Ehrenhalt, however, ably notes that much of the literature on this topic long predates the 2020s. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, easily the most widely recognized work in this area, was published in 2000. Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place, which details America's decline in "third places" - sources of community, such as taverns and cafes, which are separate from home and the workplace - was published in 1989. 

Ehrenhalt points to literature from as far back as the 1920s: "The historian Roderick Nash wrote that 'the typical American in 1927 was nervous. The values by which he ordered his life seemed in jeopardy of being swept away by the forces of growth and complexity.'"

So, I guess this is nothing new...

Societal anxieties about rising loneliness have been with us for the past century, but a combination of trends and events in the last two decades have made the anxiety worse, and probably made the underlying problem somewhat worse as well.

Unlike many authors, though, Ehrenhalt offers some prescription:

Over the years, our parks have accumulated quite a few anti-social pieces of infrastructure: They have built unnecessary fences, placed spikes on sittable ledges and taken out benches instead of making them more inviting. Reversing those sorts of decisions would be a decent start.

West Palm Beach, Fla., has installed moveable chairs in its parks; research has shown that to be a modest incentive to sociability. Salem, Mass., has installed what it calls “happy to chat benches.” Some intimidatingly large apartment buildings have experimented with music corners and tiny libraries to bring residents together. Some supermarkets in Europe have put in slow checkout lanes that encourage customers to make conversation with the checkout clerks. Sounds bizarre, but maybe it does some good.

Ehrenhalt goes on to say that the lonely have always been with us. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be proactive in taking steps to help curtail their increasing atomization. 

Far too many of us today feel deracinated from our families, places of work, and various third places. 

As I noted last year in National Review:

A new, troubling study, however, finds that Americans are now beginning to feel a detachment from civic life. Last month, “The Belonging Barometer,” co-produced by the American Immigration Council and Over Zero, concluded that the majority of Americans feel a lack of belonging to their “family, friends, workplace, and local and national communities.”

This level of detachment is simply unsustainable. Complacency isn't an option. 

Sure, Ehrenhalt is right: some of these New Urbanist remedies do sound bizarre. But they might just be bizarre enough to work... 


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