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Why So Lonesome?

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, June 26, 2006

The question about loneliness is: Why do people do this to themselves? Why do Americans, who reported an average of nearly three close friends in 1985, now report an average of just over two? And why does one in four have nobody with whom to discuss personal issues? This is the age of Oprah and MySpace, of public emoting on television and the Web. Apparently people watch "Friends" but don't actually have many.

When the new loneliness numbers appeared Friday in the American Sociological Review, some experts cautioned that the problem can be overstated. Americans say they feel close to an average of 15 others, according to Barry Wellman and Jeffrey Boase of the University of Toronto. But there's a difference between extensive networks and deep ones.

If you get sick, stressed or just plain sad, you are going to want the sort of friend you can rely on. Maybe you'll be able to convert an acquaintance into a soul mate when you discover you need one. But this just-in-time approach to emotional crises isn't always going to work. Look at the way the slow decline of friendship has been mirrored by the rise of emotional problems. Over the past half-century, the prevalence of unipolar depression in affluent countries has jumped tenfold.

People's myopia on friendship is like their myopia on saving. They know that jobs are insecure, that a health problem can cause bankruptcy, that retirement is fabulously expensive; but the household savings rate has fallen below zero. Equally, people know that spouses aren't immortal and that divorce is common. But nearly one in 10 -- a much higher share than in 1985 -- reports that their husband or wife is the only person they confide in.

People are taking these financial and emotional risks even as they neurotically avoid other risks. Today's consumers buy bike helmets and ski helmets and antibacterial soap; they fret about partially hydrogenated fats and consume less tobacco than their parents. But by some reckonings social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking.

You can see how this American isolationism sets in. Modern society creates the tools that allow you not to save -- if you have to pay for the kids' college, you can refinance your home -- while doing little to change the basic need to save for old age and misfortune. In the same way, modern society creates tools that extend your casual networks -- e-mail, instant messaging, social-networking Web sites -- while doing nothing to remove the basic need for soul mates.

Meanwhile, people work more hours. They commute longer because they've moved to the exurbs in search of larger homes; they've got spacious entertainment rooms but no mental space for entertaining. And then there's the subtle effect of the culture. "Family time" is endlessly extolled, and lovers emit poetry and song about every facet of their relationships. But when was the last time a rock singer or a new man waxed lyrical about friendship?

Yet the biggest reason for American loneliness, and perhaps the clue to some kind of cure, lies in path dependency. People know that tending to friendship is important, but their behavior follows the path created by countless other decisions -- and friendship is neglected. Social science experiments reveal lots of behavior of this kind. People who agree with their doctors that they need hip replacements seldom get around to having the procedure.

There are ways to beat path dependency, however. Another experiment has shown how undergraduates who agree to get a tetanus shot seldom actually do so, but if you make them an appointment and hand them a map to the clinic, the odds that they'll comply leap tenfold. Savings habits are equally sensitive to slight tweaks in incentives. Invite workers to sign up for 401(k) pensions and many will procrastinate. Tell workers they are part of the program unless they opt out and the participation rate rockets.

Can Americans be prodded to invest more in friendships? It's hard to imagine American companies organizing regular Japanese-style drinking sessions for the staff; it's hard to believe that a French-style cap on working hours would do more than encourage yet more lonely Web surfing.

Twenty years ago, remarks Princeton's Eldar Shafir, a concerned European might have prescribed an emergency program of cafe construction: a reverse Marshall Plan for cappuccinos. But now Starbucks has run that experiment for us. American caffeine addicts demand lattes to go -- or to sip as they enjoy the company of Wi-Fi-enabled laptops.

But there's one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton's Daniel Kahneman found that commuting -- generally alone, and generally by car -- is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

So here's my slogan for 2008: Gas taxes make you happy.

smallaby@washpost.com

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