The latest research confirms it: Americans are now perilously isolated. In a comprehensive new study by scientists at Duke University (Psych Pundit's alma mater), researchers have observed a sharp decline in our social connectedness over the past 20 years.
Remarkably, 25% of all Americans are now completely alone - without a single person they can confide in. And over half of all Americans report having no close confidants or friends outside their immediate family. The situation today is much worse today than it was when similar data were gathered in 1985 (when, for example, only 10% of Americans were completely alone).
How could this happen? It's hundreds of little things. You can probably think of several off the top of your head: longer work hours, surfing the Internet, tuning out the world as you march along to the isolating beat of your iPod . . . and don't forget all that time stuck in traffic.
According to Robert Putnam, sociologist and author of the influential book, Bowling Alone, for every 10 minutes added to your commute time, there's a 10% decrease in the likelihood of maintaining social ties.
But we're truly not designed to live like this. For the vast majority of human history, everyone lived in intimate, hunter-gatherer communities of 100-150 people. Anthropologists who spend time with modern-day hunter-gatherer bands report that social isolation and loneliness are competely unknown . . . as people spend virtually all day every day in the company of friends and loved ones.
Even Americans of a couple generations ago used to benefit from a richness of community life that has slowly disappeared. We've witnessed a long slow retreat into the hermetically sealed existence of our own fortress-like homes . . . friendships replaced by computer screens, Netflix videos, and exhausted couch potato stupor.
The toll? Increased vulnerability to mental illness. Social isolation is a huge risk factor for the onset of depression. There's also growing evidence that isolation increases vulnerability to various forms of addiction. I'll discuss this more in a future post . . .