This Is Why So Many Americans Are Lonely
Prior to COVID, Americans were already a disconnected bunch.
Nearly half of Americans have reported (in the last several years) feeling alone or left out most of the time.
1 in 4 Americans doesn’t feel like there is anyone who truly understands them.
1 in 5 Americans reports they rarely or never feel close to others.
Again, all of those statistics are way pre-COVID.
And it’s been over 35 years since the NY Times Health Editor Jane Brody first reported in 1983 that loneliness was a national epidemic in the U.S., pointing to our “highly technological society” (before smartphones, mind you) as a contributing factor and main culprit.
There are several current-day reasons why Americans are likely lonely and socially impoverished. Some of them relate to technology, others are cultural.
We cut our focus away from in-person companions (even “just momentarily”) for our devices
Most people do this sometimes. Many people do this often. Because it’s become “the norm,” we seem to have forgotten how incredibly rude it is.
Imagine if when sitting with a friend over tea, I pulled a book from my purse, opened it, and began reading. Right in the middle of my friend telling me a story. I held up a finger abruptly and said, “hold on, I just want to check this and read what happens at the end of this page.” That would be so weird and so rude. My friend would rightly be aghast and confused, would feel dismissed and insulted.
Yet, we do this all the time with our phones.
Sherry Turkle, who has written a few books about this very topic, found in her research that even the mere presence of a phone chips away at the connection between two people. For example, if I set my phone on the table while eating dinner with a friend, even if I don’t “check it,” my friend subconsciously feels less likely to confide in me, because he or she knows that at any minute, I might be reaching for my phone in the middle of them telling me something.
Even “just grabbing your phone for a moment” and telling your friend, “sorry, I just need to check this,” fractures the connection and makes your companion feel dismissed.
And then we have the extreme example of people ignoring one another for their phones like this…
It’s no wonder Americans have become a lonely culture.
We are often together, though only partially there mentally.
We continually reach for our phones and mindlessly scroll
It’s so easy to get sucked into. I’ve been a victim of this myself many times, either with Instagram or Pinterest, where you begin scrolling and then you look up twenty minutes later and realize you’ve done nothing fulfilling or worthwhile. The time, utterly wasted.
That’s what Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, all social media wants. A monopoly on your time. Your attention. And it’s easy to accidentally fall into the trap of giving it up for minutes or even hours of your day. Heck, even going through your emails can result in the same thing. (Jaron Lanier talks about this in an excellent, important, thought-provoking TED talk).
Spending time in this way, though, doesn’t make us happy. In fact, it more often results in us feeling dissatisfied, lonely, and as though we wasted our time. Time we can now never get back.
It isn’t easy, breaking that habit of reaching your phone. Why? Because phones are addictive. Several books and articles speak to this issue.
A solution? Leave your phone in another room entirely and don’t go near it for an hour or two. Do this a few times each day. It will get easier the more and more you do it. And you may find yourself eventually, far better able to focus for longer periods of time, on the task at hand.
Also, pick a time, say after 7 pm, during which your phone is put away for the night, and in another room entirely (I leave mine in the kitchen while I’m in the bedroom hanging out). After some days of doing this, you’ll likely notice a difference. That you are better focused, and maybe even…more satisfied.
We’ve traded in scrolling our phones or posting on Snapchat for reading actual books
This is a detriment for a couple of reasons.
You do not get even near to the depth and richness a book offers that reading little bits and blurbs on social media might give. The experience is also not even close to as satisfying, reading just brief snippets online instead of committing to and delving into the depth of an entire book or story.
Additionally, using our phones so much is weakening and fracturing our attention spans. Nicholas Carr talks about it in his Pulitzer Prize Finalist book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I highly recommend this one. It’s beautifully written and the message is a well-researched, scientific, sobering one.
We text instead of call, call instead of meeting in person
Many of us have grown lazy. We text instead of making a call. We opt for chatting through Facebook instead of talking on the phone. We Skype instead of meeting up. And then when we are actually spending time with someone in person, we are frequently glancing at our phones and texting other people!
We are never fully where we actually are anymore.
We are never entirely with the person we are with.
If we conclude the meetup with our friend and notice we still feel not quite as fulfilled or satisfied as we thought we would, well, this is why.
Put the phone away entirely. Turn it off so the vibrations from inside your pocket or purse don’t jar you out of the interaction. Keep the phone out of sight. Forget about it and immerse yourself fully in the connection happening right in front of you.
Many people aren’t good listeners or really that curious about others
We all know people like this. The ones who love to talk about themselves, who ask few to no questions of genuine curiosity about others, and who are always bringing the conversation back to them and their interests and their opinions.
We are all also familiar with talking to someone and noticing their gaze wandering, or they ask a follow-up question that doesn’t really match with what we were just saying, or they seem distracted, or they check their phone, or they asked a question but we can tell it’s obligatory.
No one can be a stellar listener all the time, but it’s reasonable to strive for a great social connection in our life to be an engaged listener frequently.
These two types of people and temperaments, being a poor listener, and just not having a genuine curiosity about really getting to know other people, is a significant reason why many of us are lonely. Because talking about yourself all the time is not a means of two-way, truly connecting with others (which self-centered people may not consciously realize), and because the key to deep connection is genuine curiosity and good listening.
We work too much
America is known around the world as being overworked and overstressed. We have one of the lowest numbers of paid vacation days in any developed country. Taking one sick day causes a lot of American workers to feel anxiety. It is also often expected that all of us are now ever reachable by our work.
France has enacted a relatively new law about no emailing colleagues after 6 pm. A friend of mine from Italy has talked about how in his country, it isn’t expected they will be available at all hours, in the evenings and on weekends, like it is here in the U.S. On the contrary, when it’s a weekend, your bosses and colleagues assume they cannot get a hold of you and don’t try. They leave you alone. He told me that while working here temporarily, it’s his goal not to ever get to a point where he accepts this as normal, feeling pressured to be available during hours when he shouldn’t be (evenings and weekends).
We forget that a job isn’t a contract to be available 24/7, every day, all day. A job, for decades, has been roughly 9 am to 5 pm five days a week, but with evenings and weekends entirely away from work, for yourself and your own time. The whole reason you are working is to make money to fund your life outside of work. If you enjoy your work, awesome, but this still does not change that point.
Many Americans have work emails popping up on their phones at all hours of the day, every day. They feel pressure and guilt if they don’t respond on an evening or weekend. In the U.S., we view workaholism as a badge of honor. The fact that the cost of housing has doubled over the last decade while wages have remained largely the same is contributing to people feeling like they have to work, work, work, to ever be able to afford a home. Same with the staggering amount of student loan debt in this country.
Americans are tired, they are stressed, and many of them are burnt out. They’ve forgotten what a weekend without any work looks like. They go on “vacation” but still respond to work emails the whole time (hence, they aren’t actually on vacation, and are never truly, fully away from work).
The boundary between work life and home has dissolved. And this degree of stress and busyness makes people less emotionally and mentally available for deep connections with others.
Constant stimuli and distraction
We have endless to-do lists. Exploding email inboxes. Notifications popping up on our phones all the time. Work meetings happening at all hours of the day. Long commutes. Not much vacation time. Student loans and expensive bills to pay. Everyone is tired and distracted and stressed.
This makes it really hard to feel like making the effort and putting energy toward building emotionally close friendships (which, though they do take effort and time, are well worth it, as everyone with close, wonderful friendships knows).
It takes more stillness, more relaxation, more peace, more space, and actual boundaries between when work ends and your personal life, in order to be a calmer, more focused, emotionally healthy individual who has the capacity to engage completely in satisfying relationships.
Intense polarization and viewing one another with suspicion
Our culture has become one that claims more inclusiveness, all while we’ve grown trigger happy to judge and point fingers.
A person makes one insensitive comment? That’s it, they are a racist, or a bigot, or a sexist, or a terrible person. Someone does one inconsiderate thing? Well, then they are horrible. An author writes a couple of insensitive comments in their novel? The whole book and the author themselves are now a big problem. A friend says something mildly ignorant or upsetting? Maybe they aren’t who we thought they are after all.
A moment of human error? A moment of ignorance in an otherwise good person? A mistake? We don’t make much room for these anymore. Instead, we are ready to get mad, offended, and to call people out for everything and anything.
Because when you begin carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
One timely example: Democrats assume all Trump supporters are evil, racist, sexist, terrible, hateful human beings. Yes, many Trump supporters are this. Many of them know exactly who this man is, and still, they support him. And yet, other Trump supporters don’t really understand the depth and details of all the horrible things Trump has done and the degree of damage he has caused. A lot of them may not read much (or what they do read just enforces their limited beliefs and never challenges them), they live in small towns and are likely ignorant. This is still a problem, a big one, but it doesn’t make them worthless, awful people.
And dismissing every single Trump supporter straight off on the former assumption doesn’t make any room for inviting growth, prompting learning, inviting people together, and creating a sense of community. Instead, it keeps us isolated from one another, polarized, and angry.
Yes, there are some people who are lost causes. But you need to know more beyond this simple fact (for example, Trump supporter or not) to be able to assess such a thing. A lot of people today won’t even give that a shot.
And this is coming from a staunch democrat, liberal, anti-Trump citizen.
We seem to have lost this degree of tolerance for nuance in our culture. We are also often raring to point fingers, and blame, and find fault, and write people off, the second they do something that makes us uncomfortable, insults, or offends us, or just do something we don’t understand.
We make assumptions rather than being curious, non-judgemental, and asking questions. We choose to cling to our opinion rather than being truly open to the perspectives of others. We’ve grown more concerned with being right than actually listening and learning.
Because consider this: being truly open to the opinions and experiences of others should mean that you do not emerge from every conversation in which someone offers you a different opinion, with still your own opinion fully intact. No, being truly open means being open to influence and shifting your perspective with new information that has potential or is eye-opening, and it means assuming there is likely a lot you don’t know, a lot you are wrong about, and that many of your own perspectives are limited.
As a culture, Americans are quite the lonely ones at the moment. This has been accelerated by COVID, absolutely. Though it started and has been in motion for years prior.
There is much we can do to change this. It will take a lot of effort, work, and stepping outside our comfort zones, our own perspectives, and our own opinions. It will be well worth it though.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (book)
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (book)
Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal by Ben Sasse (book)
We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships by Kat Vellos (book)
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter (book)