The best research confirms it: Americans are now perilously isolated. In a recent comprehensive study by scientists at Duke University, researchers have observed a sharp decline in social connectedness over the past 20 years.
Remarkably, 25% of Americans have no meaningful social support at all – not a single person they can confide in. And over half of all Americans report having no close confidants or friends outside their immediate family. The situation today is much worse today than it was when similar data were gathered in 1985. (At that time, only 10% of Americans were completely alone).
How could this happen? It’s hundreds of little things. You can probably think of several off the top of your head: the longer work hours, the Internet, the ubiquitous iPod . . . and don’t forget all the time spent sitting in traffic.
According to Robert Putnam, sociologist and author of the influential book, Bowling Alone, for every 10 minutes added to commute time, there’s a roughly 10% decrease in social ties.
But we’re truly not designed to live like this. For the great majority of human history, people resided in small, intimate hunter-gatherer communities. And anthropologists who spend time with modern-day hunter-gatherer bands report that social isolation and loneliness are largely unknown among them: group members spend the bulk of their time – virtually all day, every day – in the company of friends and loved ones.
Even Americans of a few generations ago used to benefit from a richness of community life that has all but disappeared, as we’ve witnessed a long, slow retreat into the hermetically sealed comfort of our fortress-like homes . . . deep friendships replaced by screens, gadgets, and exhausted couch-potato stupor.
The toll? Increased vulnerability to mental illness. Social isolation is a huge risk factor for the onset of major depression, which has more than doubled in prevalence over the past decade. And there’s growing evidence that isolation increases vulnerability to various forms of addiction, as well.
In a future post, I’ll discuss several strategies for enhancing social connection that I’ve outlined in a recent book. But here’s a useful first step: Resolve to live each day as if your relationships are your highest priority. We all say that our loved ones matter to us far more than our work, our status, our things; but it’s important that this sentiment truly be reflected in our allocation of time and energy.