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).