Friday, May 04, 2018

Lonely Americans

Americans are lonely, reports health insurer Cigna.

10,000 people who responded - half of the survey - reported feelings of loneliness and isolation. 54 percent said they feel nobody knows them well. 2 out of 5 said they lack companionship and meaningful relationships. Previous studies have shown similar findings, and yet this one indicates that the problem is more severe with the younger generation.

There are some unsurprising correlations. People reporting more in-person interactions tend to score as less lonely. Work-life balance is also correlative: working too much or too little contributes to isolation, since many of our daily relationships reside in workplaces. Time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with greater isolation.

There are cultural dimensions the study does not address.

We are, as Wendell Berry put it, a "footloose" culture, oriented around individualist models of progress and achievement, routinely moving away from family and friends to pursue personal opportunity. (Berry later revised his comment to say we are "wheel-loose.")

On one hand, we enjoy tremendous personal freedom. On the other hand, it is considered entirely normal to pick up and leave the people you love behind for months, years, or even forever, for a job or some other personal opportunity.

I've done this several times myself, and if you were to ask me, "Where are you from?" I would struggle to answer you. I am honestly not sure anymore. I know where I grew up, of course, but I left that place 18 years ago and have only paid rare, brief visits since, despite feeling like I miss it. I've lived in Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Deming. Where the heck do I belong? Couldn't tell ya.

If 54 percent of this one survey said "no one knows them well," a greater percentage than said they lack companionship or meaningful relationships, we are looking at a number of people who feel unknown even to what companions they have. They may even refer to some of these people, whom they say do not know them well, as "friends" in the casual manner we use the word.

On average, we move somewhere every few years: Americans average more than 11 moves in their lifetime. Tens of millions every year. That's a mass migration event every year.

There is also a medical reality here: social connection is related to better mental and physical health. If the conversation is primarily medical, however, we risk falling into a kind of scientism where we think about human connection as a treatment plan, with statistics and goals particular to improving some metric: "My social connection index didn't go up this month, I need to get out there and talk to somebody!" That wouldn't really be social connection.

We've done this with physical exercise: it's good to get out and walk or run or play with the kids and secondary to that it's good for your heart; if you're out for a walk or talking with your child and half of you is thinking about your heart rate or your cholesterol or your distance, half of you is not really doing what you're doing.

I even know someone who put her fitbit on a kid to help her meet her goal - saw saw the irony, but she did it. Because GOAL.

Anyway, what it boils down to is, a lot of people are unhappy, don't have the kind of friendships that can help them, and we barely even have a vocabulary allowing us to talk about it.

The picture that emerges is that a lot of us don't know where, or to whom, we belong, or even where and with whom we are now. How, then, would it be possible to know oneself?

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