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Loneliness: More Than Just a Bad Mood

Many of us are becoming more and more isolated from family and friends, argue psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz.

In the past six months, how many people have you talked to about an important life issue? If your honest answer is “no one,” don’t worry. You’re not alone. Chances are, one in every four people you know would say the same thing. The number of Americans without any close confidants has risen dramatically in the past 20 years—one of the many signs that the country is in the middle of a dramatic social change.

No matter how well connected technology makes us feel, many of us are becoming more and more isolated from family and friends, argue psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, the husband-and-wife authors of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century. As life becomes more chaotic—filled with increasing workloads, e-mail, phone calls, social obligations—there’s a natural tendency to retreat. We buy weekend homes, curl up on the couch for a night of television, let phone calls go to the answering machine. Even though research finds that more Americans are closer to their spouses than ever before, that kind of intimacy can work against us if we allow ourselves to “cocoon” within the relationship and neglect those who care about us.

The results are far-reaching, Olds and Schwartz write. Drifting away from people increases depression and anxiety, and takes a toll on the immune system. It places more pressure on a marriage; a spouse isn’t only the best, but the only friend, thereby increasing the risk of divorce and infidelity. Living alone also has an environmental impact, thanks to the precipitous rise in single-person households—from roughly 8 percent in 1940 to 27.5 percent in 2008. A one-person household, for example, uses 77 percent more electricity and 54 percent more gas per capita than a four-person home.

Harvard professors Olds and Schwartz, who have private practices in Massachusetts, had a conversation with AARP Bulletin Today about the loneliness trend and offer advice for rejoining the world.

Q. You approach loneliness as being a very natural thing, something that happens even to people who enjoy being around others.

JO. Both of us in our practices have seen lots of people who would much rather have thought of themselves as having a psychiatric diagnosis than admitting that maybe they were terribly lonely. We wanted to bring loneliness out of the closet—it’s a perfectly reasonable problem to think about solving.

Q. Why is it so common?

RS. The first reason is that just the flow of social life at times leaves everybody feeling somewhat left out, and that is an uncomfortable, lonely feeling. The second reason is that most people just need a little time to relax in solitude—an hour, a weekend, a week—so they can come back re-energized. But part of what we’re talking about in the book is that it’s easy to retreat into solitude so long that you start to feel the networks of connection you once had a place in have sealed themselves over and left you out. When that happens, sometimes it’s hard to find your way back to the world of social connection and mutual responsiveness.

JO. Also, we live in a country where there is a great deal of mobility, so almost everyone at some point in life moves to a new place where it takes a while to get established, and feels lonely because of that.

Q. How can any American be lonely when we’re now so connected through technology, like mobile phones, e-mail, Facebook and Skype?

JO. Well, there’s the new data that has come in from the General Social Survey. The 1985 survey results were stunning, that 10 percent of Americans felt they hadn’t discussed important matters with anyone—not friends, relatives, spouses or children—in the last six months. But that number rose to 25 percent in 2004. There’s also been a constant rise in single-person households. In 2000, around 25 percent of American households were single-person households. And if you live alone, it’s a little bit harder to stay connected than if you live with people.

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