Wednesday, September 5, 2018


According to The Economist (September 1-17, 2008), 22% of American adults "always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated." The plague of loneliness is such that in January the British Prime Minister appointed "a minister for loneliness." (The same survey cited above found the same result for 23% of British adults.)

So I am not alone in feeling alone!

Loneliness itself is not new, of course. According to the article in The Economist, loneliness is "a reflex honed by natural selection. Early humans would have been at a disadvantage if isolated from a group."

The problem is that human beings are still disadvantaged when isolated, but the long-term isolation seems to be on the rise. until the 20th century most people lived in families, My father, for example, had 2 brothers and 4 sisters; and, apart form his military service during World War he never lived out of easy commuting distance from his siblings. Nowadays, however, more and more people live alone. Even worse, "From 1985 to 2009 the average size of an American's social network - defined by the number of confidants - declined by more than one-third." And, as everyone knows by now, membership is churches and other voluntary associations is on the decline. It seems as if the traditional ways in which most people experienced automatic connection with others or were able to forge personal connections of their own with others are all in serious decline.

Of course, technology gets a good deal of the blame as well. As The Economist notes, "A sharp drop in how often American teenagers go out without their parents began in 2009, around when mobile phones became ubiquitous.

So what is to be done? Turning off the phone would certainly help! Even in contexts where there are actually other people around, withdrawal into one's phone can be an obvious way of isolating oneself. That is why, for example, in my own religious community, I have made it my personal policy to leave my phone in another room when i go to dinner. 

In the UK, the National health Service has apparently started "social prescribing" - sending patients to social activities in lieu of giving them medications! That sounds very interesting. But if loneliness is systemic, if it is built into the very structure of modern life, the problem may prove beyond fixing.

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