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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.

RS. Especially if you’re a little shy, which a normal percentage of the population is. If you have a slew of roommates who are socializing, it’s a little bit easier to just sit there and find connection.

Q. And at the same time, on the weekend you might want nothing more than to just get away from your roommates—or anyone else for that matter.

JO. True. I think that an enormously large reason for loneliness is because American life is so crazy-busy. People work so hard that we all sometimes want to step back from the fray and have a little peace and quiet. It’s just that when you keep stepping back, pretty soon you start feeling a little left out.

RS. Which speaks to what you were saying before about the bombardment with cellphones, e-mails and text messages. At every moment, someone’s reaching out and communicating with you. We know so many people whose response to that is, “I just can’t deal with this level of stimulation, so I stopped checking my messages.” So they step back a little, they start offending people just a bit because they’re not responding to them, and suddenly they feel disconnected.

Q. Are there signs to look for, to know if this is happening to you?

JO. Most people can tell when pleasant solitude has changed to loneliness. They start feeling they don’t quite have enough to do, and feeling everybody else has more connections than they do. They may start getting more chronic infections because their immune system is down. They might feel like they need to drink more or eat more to give themselves some solace.

Q. What do you do if a friend is drifting away? We all try to respect people’s time constraints when they say they’re too busy to get together.

RS. A friend of ours said that a while ago, if you had a neighbor you liked, you’d find a way to pay a visit. Now if there’s someone you like, you try not to bother them.

JO. I also think that people get into a mindset where they think if they have to see anybody, it will be energy-depleting, when in fact it might be energizing. So if there’s somebody you miss and you think they’re being too reclusive, just turn up on their doorstep and bring them something delicious to eat.

Q. In this day and age, though, it can be more of a frustration for them to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to somebody who wants to socialize.

RS. I think that’s the working assumption, but once someone starts being lonely, one way to manage the loneliness is to fill the time with busyness. Then you really get into a vicious circle where you’re getting busier and you’re proclaiming your busyness to other people, which keeps them away. Then, you’re filling your remaining empty time with more busyness. We suggest taking the risk that someone would actually like to be rescued from their busyness.

Q. Do you think part of it is keeping up with the Joneses? Everybody wants others to think they’re accomplishing big, important things.

JO. I think absolutely that’s right. We’ve gotten into this embarrassing busyness competition. In school when a teacher assigned busywork, we all shunned it. Now we are always competing with each other to see who has the most stupid busywork.

Q. And to see who’s the most popular. On social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, there’s a not-so-secret competition to see who has the most friends.

RS. In a study by Pew, they called people and asked them how many close friends they have. And everybody gives a very high number. It’s only when you then sit down in person and say “Have you talked to one of them in the last six months?” that you get a different kind of answer.

Q. Can you be lonely in a happy marriage?

JO. I think you can. One of the things this General Social Survey came up with was that people used to have on the average three confidants. Now, they have two. Usually, if they’re married, one of those is their spouse, which is a great thing for the marriage. But if you’re too dependent on your spouse to be your everything, then it puts a little too much pressure on the romantic relationship. We think families cocoon too much. It’s a shame couples don’t invite other couples and families over to their homes to socialize more frequently.

Q. Do you feel as a couple that you’ve found the right balance?

RS. We have to say the answer is yes.

JO. Yeah, we have to answer that way.

Q. OK, but let’s be honest.

JO. Well, I would say that back in the days when our kids were tiny and we were killing ourselves trying to work hard and do a good job as parents, that there were many times where we did feel a little bit lonely and we couldn’t imagine how you could have people over to supper, too. It seemed impossible. It took us a while, but we figured out a few things that really helped, and knit the neighborhood together. Like baby-sitting cooperatives, and getting together with other families for pizza. We even had something we called neighborhood camp—during school vacations, we had a couple of 14-year-olds from the neighborhood take care of the younger kids, and it was fantastic.

Q. Are there some tricks that you can use to reconnect yourself?

JO. Engineer mutual projects into your life. This could mean anything from taking care of somebody’s plants or pets when they go away, to making sure that the neighborhood is crime free, to making sure that the schools in your neighborhood are better quality, to working for a political party. It doesn’t really matter what the project is, but you need a kind of mutual mission where you regularly see the people who care about your project or cause and you see them regularly.

Too many people think of those kinds of relationships as burdens, rather than as something that will, over time, make you feel closer to those people. So it’s a kind of breeding ground for great friendships. For every community association you join, according to one study, you add at least a year onto your life because it gets you seeing people regularly again.

Q. I’ve always felt like joining community associations takes a year off my life.

RS. Joining the first one adds a year to your life. It’s not clear that joining the second one doesn’t take it back off.

JO. It’s amazing that if you can do anything regularly with people you like and not have to plan it from scratch every month—whether it’s a book group, or a quilting club, or a community beautification committee—that the regularity of seeing people will end up making those relationships deeper over time.

RS. That regularity point is something that sounds dull but is really important. One of the things that we think people get wrong, whether it’s about marriages or friendships, is the idea that you can hold a relationship together over a very long period of time simply by being fascinating to each other—rather than having a regular engagement with each other, and a mutual project or mission.

Q. It’s interesting that smaller households are actually worse for the environment than larger households.

JO. Isn’t that amazing? And we’re very worried that in the old Victorian-novel sense—like in Jane Austen’s novels—that a lot of people get set in their ways. There’s stupid folk wisdom about how you have to be able to live by yourself and love yourself before you could possibly live with anybody else. We think that’s really dumb.

Q. The studies indicate a major trend toward an increasingly desolate society where people don’t really have any close bonds. So I’m hoping you can tell me about some hopeful signs you’ve seen lately.

RS. There are a couple of hopeful signs. The last election more so than many others actually mobilized people into pretty connected groups working together. Another thing is that in Manhattan, where there are more single-person dwellings than anyplace else in the country, some high-end condominium buildings are designing common spaces where people can share meals together. So there is a sense that the pendulum is swinging back.

Christie Findlay is editor in chief of Politics magazine.