I just finished reading The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century (earlier post about it) and I recommend it to anyone interested in community in the United States.
The authors, Harvard clinical psychiatry professors and husband and wife, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, put forth a compelling thesis. We see evidence of many of their points through our work on Front Porch Forum. From their summary…
We began with a simple but compelling fact from the General Social Survey: in the past twenty years, the number of Americans who have talked to no one about something of importance to them during the previous six months has skyrocketed. That number is now a quarter of the population. In all the debates about how socially connected we are to one another as a nation, that fact stands out. Whatever the average connectedness might be (and there is convincing evidence that average connectedness has also declined), a socially isolated core has now grown too large to be ignored.
We then explored the cultural and psychological factors that currently shape so many small but life-altering choices that push people in the direction of greater disconnection. We described both a push and a pull. The push is the increasing franticness of daily life, which makes one want to step back whenever possible to reduce the deafening background noise. The pull is the American ideal of the self-reliant loner-hero, which can make stepping back feel like a badge of superiority.
Next, we examined the effects that stepping back has on an individual. We found that the experience of social exclusion, seemingly so petty, is in fact so powerful, so deeply embedded in both neurobiology and personal experience, that it takes hold and starts to reshape a person’s feelings, thinking and behavior — even when the individual has unknowingly left him- or herself out by small steps back. We also found that once people have left themselves out, it is very hard to find a way back in, party because a set of slightly paranoid feelings take over and people stop trying.
Finally, we looked at the consequences of social disconnection, which turn out to be both extensive and remarkably diverse. Social isolation reduces happiness, health, and longevity. It increases aggression. It increases substance abuse. It correlates with increasing rates of violent crime. It probably reduces the effectiveness of democratic government. And it squanders the world’s resources in environmentally damaging ways.
And they write in some detail about technology…
In our drift apart, is technology part of the solution or part of the problem?
They cite research supporting each view… some in direction opposition to the other’s findings. They also discuss the richness of face-to-face interaction at a brain-science level… different things happen in our heads when talking with a friend a foot or two away, then when using a technological connection. They also make some interesting points about online porn as it relates to all this. And more…
Here are two intriguing bits of information: customers of online dating services go out with less than 1% of people whose profiles they study, while participants of speed-dating events go out with more than one in ten of the people they meet… “The people at these [speed-dating] events realize that there aren’t an infinite number of possibilities. If they want to get anything out of the evening, they have to settle for less than perfection. They also can’t help but notice that they have competition.”
The authors also cite Barry Schwartz’s “The Tyranny of Choice” that the assumptions that more choice is better and people with more choices are happier are wrong. Basically, online social networking can offer infinite choices, and too many choices tends to lead to unhappiness for us humans.
Lots more packed into this little volume. Again, I recommend reading and thinking about this book.