Are You a Lonely American?


My friend, Ryan, recently caught my attention with a book entitled The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century.  This book was written by two professors of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, in an effort to uncover the increasing disconnectedness in American life and its startling effects. It has been garnering a lot of attention, from Oprah to Newsweek. For anyone who has looked into the work of Robert Putnam and his book Bowling Alone, this book builds upon that important research.

Here’s a taste of Olds and Schwartz’s insights:

  • from 1985 to 2004, the number of people in America who said they did not have a single confidante – someone they could discuss deeply personal and important matters – tripled to a stunning 1 out of every 4 people
  • being disconnected reduces happiness, health, and longevity, increases aggression, and correlates with increasing rates of violent crime
  • today’s busy parents “cocoon” themselves by devoting all of their non-work time to children, leaving no time for partners, friends, and other forms of social contact, and unhealthily relying on the marriage to fulfill all social needs

The directions I could go in responding to this fascinating book are almost endless: socialization of children, family life, singleness, depression, small group communities, and more.

However, I’d like to get some discussion by simply drawing an excerpt from the conclusion of the book on religion’s impact on loneliness. Even though this excerpt is a bit long, I would love to get some interaction going on the important topics it touches upon.

One thing is certain. Religious life speaks directly to the discontents that arise from a socially disconnected life, and it offers a cure. Remember that the cognitive effects of social exclusion include meaninglessness and lethargy. A welcoming pastor and a welcoming congregation solve the problem of social exclusion and at the same time offer direct relief from meaninglessness and lethargy. The dramatic rise of membership in evangelical churches over the last several decades is no doubt a response to a complicated mix of yearnings, but the yearning for human connection has played a major role. Some of the more successful churches are very clear on this point and have explicitly organized themselves into just the kind of small groups that are best at making lonely individuals feel connected and held, the kind of small group that formed the basic survival strategy of the human species. We are ‘built’ to need and to respond to the connection and holding that small groups provide….Religious life and religious organizations remain a vital source of social connectedness in the personal lives of individuals. Even if religion is not currently the wellspring of social capital that it once was in America, it still plays a major role in countering the social isolation of individuals and families. To us as clinicians, that is no small point. (187-189).

9 thoughts on “Are You a Lonely American?

  1. In my journeys over the last several years, I’ve found this very much to be true. People feeling more isolated and less connected. Hundreds of acquaintances, yet not a single people to truly confide in or be honest with. (Facebook is a wonderful example.)
    However, what I have also discovered is a horde (and I use the word very intentionally, because the number is staggering) of people who sought out a church or religious life (or had been involved in one, perhaps for years) to seek solace and connectedness only to find heartache, betrayal, and more pain than the ache of loneliness. Once this occurs, it is VERY difficult for that trust to be rebuilt, that desire for community and connectedness to overrule or win out over the fear. People I have met would rather be isolated and alone than face the fears of what they perceive (and have experienced) as an inevitable extreme pain of severing, ripping apart and being tossed aside.
    Can the church and its people really help and provide this to people? Yes, it can. But many times it does for a season, only to end up with more bodies on the trash heap or once again wandering lost and alone.
    Am I simply being negative or disagreeable? No. These are the people that I have been blessed to connect with over the last several years. It is an extremely long process of trying to win trust and be a friend without an agenda, but it is extremely rewarding if/when the connection is made.
    We can’t simply rely on churches or even count on them to solve this issue, or even necessarily point ALL people to a church as the solution, because frankly, for many people it is not and never will be a viable solution.
    WE need to be the solution.
    Within/without a church – it doesn’t matter.
    If we have the hope inside us and love that flows out through us, we have a better chance of making that connection than any formal institution does. And if it is done with a true heart of friendship, strengthen by the light of Christ inside us, then we have less of a chance to tear apart and sever than the politics and gossips of a larger group often does. We alone are not any less fallible, but how often do we burn our own friends in an irreconcilable way? Not often. But institutions and groups do. Far too often. Humans together in groups do things unthinkable that individually or in smaller groups would never dream of.
    So, yes, the religious life is definitely a solution, but just know who you are talking with, connecting with and truly do your best to understand their needs and issues before you make the quick and easy suggestion of visiting a church (or your church or club). Treat everyone as a concerned friend and the resulting suggestion or encouragement will ultimately be most beneficial even if it’s not what some might think you “should do” or have been always taught to do.
    If I had to guess, this long-winded comment will not be met with much enthusiasm, but I’m only speaking from my experiences with the 100 or so people I’ve met with stories like this.
    Peace of the blessed three-in-one be with you.

  2. Chad, thanks so much for the honest comments and insights from your own journey and with people who have faced rejection from the church that has only led to increased loneliness.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think your experience is out of the ordinary. That’s why there is a plethora of books that take on this topic, such as Dan Kimball’s “They Like Jesus But Not the Church.”

    I do agree that there are many churches that are much less than what one would hope. They are not the places of true community and belonging that thes psychiatrists are discussing in this well-researched book.

    The church, as Augustine astutely pointed out in “The City of God”, is a mess of sinners and saints all rolled together on this fallen world.

    Having been in a lot of different churches, I have yet to encounter the perfect one, but have instead seen again and again how clearly we are all broken – just in different ways.

    I do agree with you that WE HAVE TO BE THE SOLUTION. It has to start with us. If we are not doing something ourselves to start to BE THE CHANGE then we might as well shut our mouths on the matter.

    But the tension remains: how do we be the change ourselves while also living with imperfect people. How have you done this yourself?

    Hopefully, somehow, the church CAN continue to bring life and light to a lonely world with all of our imperfections.

  3. I just read this book and was blown away by the simplicity of the two PhD’s prescription for loneliness. Relationships. Connectedness to friends and relatives. Talking to neighbors. Staying in the community and engaged within that community instead of withdrawing. These are “the stuff of life” that bring health to the body, soul and mind–and ultimately bring the sense of contentedness each one of us is looking for. How simple and yet challenging in our fast paced world. But withdrawing from the fast paced life around us does not always bring the answers we long for. Instead this usually adds to the depression, loneliness, and lack of health that we are trying to avoid. Interestingly enough, these two psychotherapists do not advocate hiring a professional to sort out our “issues”–but maintaining and deepening the ties that already exists with current friends, colleagues, neighbors and family.

  4. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I started Social Capital Inc. motivated in large part to my read of Bowling Alone along with experiences in my community. While I have chosen to take a more secular approach to the problem of isolation, I certainly appreciate the important role churches can play in building community and providing a place for people to connect with something greater than themselves.

  5. Thanks, David, for the helpful words. Bowling Alone and Putnam’s work is excellent.

    Kelly, I completely agree that withdrawing from life is not the answer to gaining contentedness in this fast-paced world.

    At the same time, I find it hard as an introvert to balance my personal need for ‘space’ through solitude for personal renewal, and the ultimate need we all have for community.

    This is a challenge for me personally.

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