Recently at Psychology Today, I asked, “Are Americans becoming more and more isolated?” So many thoughtful comments were posted there and emailed to me that I thought I’d rewrite the post with those in mind. Instead, though, I’ll just summarize the original post briefly (you can read the whole thing here) so I can get to readers’ comments more quickly. I won’t get to all of the points (or at least not in this post), so let me thank JSS, Alan, UpperWorks, Anony-mouse, Psyngle, Lauri, Deb01, and everyone who emailed me for taking the time to share your observations.
A group of researchers (the McPherson team) set off a media panic with the findings they reported that Americans had given in response to the question, “Looking back over the last six months – who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” Apparently, 25% of Americans had reported that they had no one to talk to, compared to just 10% who said the same thing two decades previously. The total number of people that Americans named in response to that question also declined from 3 to 2 – a huge change, sociologically speaking.
So huge, in fact, that others began to question whether there may have been something wrong with the data, caused, for example, by an undetected glitch in the devices used to collect the data. Other seemingly related questions within the same survey did not show any increase in social isolation. Those questions included, for example, “How many close friends would you say you have?” and any inquiry as to how many social evenings the survey respondents typically spend with neighbors, friends, and relatives.
A different survey asked Americans in 2002 and 2007 to answer the question, “How many friends outside of your household do you have that you see or speak to at least once a week?” Those researchers found an INCREASE in the number of friends we have.
What counts as “important matters”?
The answer may be different to different people. Plus, they may not remember the people with whom they did or did not discuss “important matters” or whether they had those discussions within the past 6 months.
Is the question about “important matters” really different from the other, seemingly related questions?
The real question at the heart of my post was whether we could take seriously the results that seemed to say that Americans are dramatically more isolated than they were two decades ago. Other findings suggest something quite different. In my original post, I repeated the contention of the McPherson team that their question was asking something clearly different from all the other questions. But was it really?
Do you really think that the way people interpret the question, “over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you” would be different enough from questions such as “How many close friends would you say you have?” to produce such strikingly different results? If the answer is “no,” then the case for The Lonely, Isolated American is greatly weakened.
Is there a difference between being lonely and being alone?
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. Pundits who point to the growth of 1-person households as indicative of the growing loneliness or isolation of Americans are missing this important distinction. I was trying to make a similar point (and should have done so more clearly) in noting that not all people enjoy emotional sharing to the same degree. A level of confiding that would leave one person profoundly lonely might feel just fine to someone else.
Do people in contemporary Western society have more options for confiding than turning to relatives or friends?
Several important observations were made about this, too. Sometimes we can find what we want to know online. Or, if we have the resources and the inclination, we can go to professionals, such as therapists. But do people who look online or talk to therapists do so as a substitute for talking to friends or do the various possibilities complement each other? It may be different for different people. One reason it is plausible to think that people who do more of one also do more of others is the finding about internet use: The increase in the number of friends reported from 2002 to 2007 was greatest for those who used the internet the most.
Are there different norms for what we confide in our friends than there were in the past?
I love this question. When I was a college student (granted, that was back in the Stone Age), a staple of college life was the late-night bull session. These sessions were not just about bull. We really did discuss profound (to us) issues. My college experience would have seemed a lot more superficial without those sessions. Yet, when I asked a few recent college students about this, I didn’t get the sense that these kinds of lengthy, deep conversations had the same place in their college lives.
That’s just anecdotal so it counts for nothing except a source of curiosity. Did you see Claude Fischer’s guest post about invented friendship? I liked his empirically-grounded distinction between the “love piping hot” between friends of the past vs. the “American cool” that came later.
What’s the real relationship between money and happiness?
There is actually a fair amount of research on this issue. I should take a close look at it some time. For now, you can take a look at this post on Claude Fischer’s blog.
Extended families, mobility, communication technologies…
There’s SO much to say about how changes in these kinds of factors may add up to differences in feelings of connectedness… I’ll add it to my list.
Thanks again, everyone.