The Loneliness Epidemic
The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century
By Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz
224 pages; Beacon Press
Are Americans inadvertently becoming lonelier? That is the thesis of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, a thought-provoking, engagingly lucid book by two psychiatrists, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, married to each other. Building on their clinical experience and past studies such as Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and Philip Slater's The Pursuit of Loneliness, they see a spreading malaise of social disconnection, which the larger culture reinforces. They cite census statistics such as the dramatic rise in single-person households and new social surveys that show an increase in narcissism and a decrease in the number of meaningful conversations people report having with anyone.Why this disturbing trend? Olds and Schwartz posit that the American myth of the self-reliant outsider heroizes going it alone; the contemporary lifestyle of overwork and busy-busy leaves little time for personal relationships; the shame of feeling left out causes many not to articulate their loneliness, even to themselves. The new communication technologies—IM, Internet, and cell phones—for all their beelike exchange, promote a disembodied, hollow quality that staves off intimacy. Finally, the unrealistic promise to "have it your way" (the Burger King slogan) has fostered a generation of Americans who are determined to keep all options open, yet—unhappily confused by excessive choices—end up by themselves.
One can quibble with the authors' casual willingness to rope in any evidence, from exciting hard-science discoveries in neurobiology to squishier questionnaires to analyses of Westerns to Netflix users' reviews. But their hunches seem right, and their anecdotes invariably nail the point; for instance, the couple who, fleeing the pressures of work and social obligation, move to the country only to find themselves cut off and dropped by old friends. A deeper objection might be the authors' reluctance to address until the last page the ways we are essentially all alone as an inescapable human condition. Nevertheless, they have written a wise, balanced, and evocative inquiry; their finger is on the pulse of something very real.