Together Alone: An Epidemic of Loneliness

Young woman sitting alone in coffee houseFor decades, the traditional ties that bind Americans together have been growing weaker. This trend appears to be making our people and politics less healthy.  

February 23, 2020

In a 2018 study by the health insurance company Cigna, nearly half of Americans reported feeling alone sometimes or always. This isn’t a sudden shift in our culture, but a decades-long trend. Between 1985 and 2004, the portion of Americans who say they have no close friends nearly tripled, according to one analysis. Not only is this reality taking a toll on our health (enough so that a major health insurer is concerned about the data), it’s also taking a toll on our politics.

Bowling Alone
Robert Putnam was talking with a friend who owned a bowling center when he learned a bit of industry news that piqued his interest: Americans were bowling more than ever (at the time, they were more likely to bowl than to vote). But they weren’t doing so in leagues, where they had a sense of community and mutual accountability. They were doing it alone, or perhaps with small groups of friends or family members. Bowling in leagues was down a lot, by about 60 percent.

Putnam, a political science professor, saw in this observation an indicator of a larger trend. Americans weren’t just dropping out of bowling leagues. They also were dropping out of political groups, labor unions, bridge clubs, Boy Scouts, parent-teacher associations, and other kinds of civic organizations. They had become less likely to eat dinner with their families, go on picnics, or hang out at a neighborhood bar. In short, Americans had stopped connecting with each other. His groundbreaking 2001 book, “Bowling Alone,” became shorthand for the social isolation and civic disengagement that increasingly characterizes American culture.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of our nation, Europeans marveled at our commitment to collective action. But in the 20 years since “Bowling Alone” went mainstream, Putnam says Americans have only continued to fracture. “We are much more isolated in ways — culturally, politically, economically, and socially — than we have been in a hundred and twenty years,” he said in an interview last summer. “The whole idea that ‘We’re all in this together’ is now out of fashion. We’d like to be connected, but we’re not.”

Weaving Us Back Together
Two initiatives at The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, seek to improve the quality of our politics by making our society less lonely. One is a project called Weave, led by conservative columnist David Brooks. Brooks says that our nation’s social fabric has been “badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion” and that the big task before us is to end loneliness and isolation, thereby weaving Americans back together.

Brooks delivers his prescription for a healthy society in The Relationist Manifesto, a call for Americans to view themselves as members of communities and commit to serving others. Our democracy, he says, rests upon the foundation of society. Without meaningful relationships, common goals, and genuine altruism, our nation will fall apart. “Our society is beset by ever-higher levels of distrust, ever-higher levels of unknowing, racism, prejudice and alienation,” Brooks writes. “One bad action breeds another. One escalation of hostility breeds another.” His initiative highlights people who act as “weavers” by making their communities loving and welcoming, treating neighbors as family no matter how different they appear to be, and building connection by caring for others.

The second initiative is Citizen University, led by Eric Liu, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton. One of his programs, Civic Saturday, offers a venue where people can overcome polarization by meeting face-to-face. Held regularly, Civic Saturday in some ways mirrors the experience people may have as part of a faith community. Liu delivers speeches he calls “sermons” and wants participants to “connect around the values and practices of being an active citizen, reckon with and reflect on our nation’s creed, and build relationships that create new civic traditions that are joyful and communal.” The goal is not only to educate people about civic engagement, but to build a movement of Americans who are committed to it in their everyday lives.

Are you looking to jumpstart your civic engagement? Columnist Arthur Brooks offers two easy recommendations: resolve to talk to a stranger every day, and refuse to let politics cut you off from others. Human contact is good for our health and our politics, even when we disagree. If we want to be happier and have more human connection in our lives,” says Brooks, “we need to recognize our own baseless fears, stop letting technology and corrosive politics control our behavior, and be a little braver.”

Learn More

Start Young: Democracy doesn’t come naturally, says one writer; it’s something we must learn and practice. Young people especially need opportunities for self-governance that will help them develop into active citizens – via The Atlantic

Deaths of Despair: Economist Angus Deaton points to social and economic factors that are driving an increase in deaths from suicide, drug abuse, and alcoholism among working class Americans – via McCoy Center for Family Ethics at Stanford University

Not All Bad: Yes, the U.S. has problems, but the data isn’t quite as dire as it seems, and some other trends suggest that Americans, especially young ones, are moving in the right direction – via Bloomberg

Rebuilding Social Capital: One opinion writer wonders if the problems rural America faces are more social and spiritual in nature than economic – via Governing

Resisting Alone: Democrats are marching and donating in record numbers. But much of their engagement happens online or in isolated groups, and they are not forging social ties that could build a lasting movement – via The New Republic

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This article originally appeared in the February 23, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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