Welcome to the club. In the past 30 years, the number of Americans who've become members of a group, any group—the PTA, the Elks club, the NAACP, church congregations, Girl Scouts, bowling leagues—has plummeted. "We rarely gather anymore," says Robert D. Putnam, PhD, the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone (2000), a landmark book that examined 30 years of data about American civic involvement, and coauthor of the more recent Better Together: Restoring the American Community. Voting participation is also way down. We invite neighbors over for dinner 45 percent less often than in the 1970s.
Such disengagement does matter. "The best predictor of a low crime rate in a neighborhood is when most of the people know their neighbors' first names," Putnam says. Health suffers, too, when we cut ourselves off from others. "Your chances of dying in the next 12 months are halved by joining a group," he says. "Social isolation is as big a risk factor for death as smoking."
Happily, societal alienation is tractable; each of us can tackle it. If you have children, just attend your local school's next PTA meeting, Putnam says. Invite your friends to a cookout or lunch in the park. "There's a relatively new scientific discipline about happiness," he says. "It shows that money can increase happiness, but not by much. By far the strongest component of happiness is how connected you are." Merely going on picnics has been found to increase a person's contentment by about 15 percent over those who never dine alfresco at all.
Turn off the television, too. The drop in American civic participation is closely tied to the period in the early 1960s when household TV ownership reached 90 percent. Participation in youth sports is also down dramatically across the country. "Instead of watching the football game on Sunday, go outside and play football with your kids," Putnam says. "This isn't like telling you to eat your broccoli. It's more like 'take two parties and call me in the morning.' America would be a happier, healthier, more prosperous place if we connected—one to another. That's a scientific fact." (For lots of specific suggestions about participating in your community, school, neighborhood, and nation, see bettertogether.org, run by the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University.)
But you don't enjoy groups. In fact, you'd rather be by yourself most of the time. Should you try to make yourself more social? How?
The good news about the science of connections is that "some people just don't need very many," says Peter D. Kramer, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and the author of Listening to Prozac and Should You Leave? In many cases, one or two close relationships can be sustaining and sufficient.
"Psychiatry has come back to an interest in innate temperament," says Kramer, and experts believe that certain people are born shy or introverted. This doesn't mean they're stunted or socially maladroit. In Solitude: A Return to the Self, the late British psychiatrist Anthony Storr points out that creativity is often linked to seclusion. Henry James, Beatrix Potter, Franz Kafka, Beethoven—all were loners (though not all were content; Kafka claimed to want to marry but couldn't bear the thought of a wife actually watching him write).