Why are Americans so Alone?
Public life in America has steadily shrunk for decades. Should we really call this a "loneliness" crisis?
In 2019, Americans spent an average of just four hours per week with friends— a 37 percent drop from five years earlier. That amounts to one, maybe two, short outings with friends in a given week. Time alone grew even more after 2020, the year of the pandemic, when the average American spent just two hours and 45 minutes per week with close friends—a 58 percent decline from 2010.
When the definition of “friends” was stretched to include neighbors, co-workers and clients, the average American reportedly spent 10 hours per week with those “friends” in 2021 (and, let’s be real, not everybody considers their neighbors and co-workers friends, let alone likes to spend time with them).
All this alone time was recently seplled out in a Washington Post opinion piece, “Americans are choosing to be alone. Here’s why we should reverse that,” based on figures from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), a government survey tied to the census. I’m immediately struck, first, by the idea that people are simply “choosing” to be alone, and second, that this is some trend people should, somehow, “reverse.” As though not being alone is like switching your car into reverse and slowly backing into the funnest party in the world with all of your best friends.
The idea that America is a lonely place is not at all new. Still, it’s hard to easily come upon a satisfying reason(s) that explains it. And it’s even harder to find something material and substantial to do about it.
The Washington Post piece ends with a hollow plea for readers to “Go hang out with friends for coffee, or a hike, or in a museum, or a concert — whatever,” the writer says. “You will feel better, create memories, boost your health, stumble across valuable information — and so will your companions.” The writer says people must, “put effort into building relationships.”
Well, yeah, dude. You think these ideas haven’t occured to any of the people spending unhealthy amounts of their time alone? If “reversing” this mass loneliness was as easy as going on a hike with your neighbor or calling a friend to get coffee, then this wouldn’t really be a problem in the first place. All of this goes much deeper than phoning a friend for coffee.
The point is, there are obstacles here. There is something getting in the way. It could be part of our psychology. It could be the way our lives are materially structured. Maybe something about socializing itself has changed, and this is generating what we’re calling loneliness. Sure, some people genuinely prefer to spend time alone. They’re called loners. Sometimes that doesn’t end well. Because human beings are social animals.
In 2000, the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam wrote a famous book titled “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam, like this WaPo article, observes measurable ways in which Americans are declining to engage in civic, public, and political life, and wind up (metaphorically) bowling alone.
But I think Putnam’s analysis, like this WaPo piece, is quite superficial. For instance, neither the WaPo story nor Putnam takes into account that America can be for many people a brutal and repressive society. We’re a nation where guns outnumber people, where cops out number school teachers and counselors, where some schools have more police officers than nurses. People get mowed down in malls, at concerts, at trips to the grocery store and Walmart all the time simply because it’s really easy for people to buy guns.
We’ve built this hugely complex country that seems perfectly great at making missiles and bombs and weapons, but really bad at doing basically anything productive and positive that helps people.
This is a society where many people are living, often teetering, on the razor’s edge. Just read the heartbreaking stories of families who greatly suffered after a few politicians (ahem, Joe Manchin) refused to extend the Child Tax Credit. Unlike other nations across Europe, Americans don’t have months of paid vacation, paid sick leave, universal child care or health care. So when I think of “loneliness,” it strikes me as a problem bigger than individuals and how they choose to spend their time, as if for all of us it’s a free, unencumbered choice to begin with.
While more people may technically be alone, I wonder if the word “loneliness” properly describes the condition we’re talking about. This is going to be a long post because I felt like really diving into the nature of this “loneliness,” to try and pull on some threads, to chase down ideas, to try and sketch out why, in this gigantic country of hundreds of millions of people, we’re feeling so alone.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial