Opinion | An Epidemic of Loneliness in America?


Does it exist, and if so, what is the cause, and what can be done?

CreditCreditJohn Taggart for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Loneliness Is Tearing America Apart,” by Arthur C. Brooks (Op-Ed, Nov. 24):

We agree. In 2009, when we wrote “The Lonely American,” we were deeply troubled that Americans had fewer confidants than in the past, and almost 25 percent reported that they had not talked about matters of importance with anyone in the last six months. We speculated that many people felt beleaguered by the growing demands for more productivity and longer hours at work, side by side with greater job insecurity, and so they retreated after work, putting less effort into their connections with friends and neighbors.

In order to form a community where you live, you need to stay in one place longer than a year or two and create joint projects with others whom you see weekly or bimonthly to achieve that mission. This can be as simple as a car pool, or as complicated as a community chorus. But if you stick with it long enough, it will result in long-term friendships.

This is the simple intentional way that people can create the building blocks of community where they actually live. And a real community, like Senator Ben Sasse’s hometown, Fremont, Neb., cited by Mr. Brooks, draws in and looks after the lonely people who are otherwise seduced by the illusion of connection offered by extremists on the internet.

Jacqueline Olds
Richard S. Schwartz
Cambridge, Mass.
The writers are associate professors of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

To the Editor:

I know that “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.” It’s oppressive, depressing and very sports-oriented. Where I grew up, Friday night was reserved for boys’ basketball games. As a girl, you could be a cheerleader or you could cheer in the stands. Either way, Friday night was an occasion for girls to support boys. So no, as a 73-year-old, I don’t want another hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.

I’ve lived in a big city for 48 years now. I raised two children here, and I hope to retire in place. Big cities have lots of ways to forge friendships and communities that are open and accepting — more so than small towns. At the same time, cities offer private and alone time.

Loneliness hurts — but most of all, it hurts when we’re not connected to ourselves or when our real selves are not valued by our communities.

Susan E. Anderson

To the Editor:

Republicans like Senator Ben Sasse blame America’s frayed sense of community on lonely people who no longer go to the gym with the family Friday evenings. Loneliness, however, is a symptom of large changes in society, many caused by policies that Republicans have pursued over decades.

Tax cuts exploded wealth inequality and destroyed any sense that workers and chief executives both benefited from a company’s success. The gutting of labor unions has removed an important forum for community. The replacement of stable lifetime industrial jobs with temporary service jobs has undermined that important source of stable community.

These are all outcomes of Republican policies since the Reagan era. The first step to addressing these societal problems is an honest acknowledgment of their true cause. Going to the gym on Fridays is not going to cure what ails America.

Eliot Brenowitz
The writer is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

To the Editor:

Arthur C. Brooks (like David Brooks) is spreading the false story that we are undergoing a loneliness “epidemic.” Loneliness is a serious social problem, but there is no good evidence that it has spiked over the last couple decades or so.

That verdict is clear in the wider social science literature and in two broad investigations this year — one by CQ Researcher (“Loneliness and Social Isolation”) and another by a Senate committee (“All the Lonely Americans”).

Furthermore, the idea that lonely people are tearing America apart is misleading. While “loners” are occasional shooters, they often become so after getting connected to a movement.

We have no current epidemic of loneliness, but we do have periodic epidemics of alarm about loneliness, as symbolized by “The Lonely Crowd” (1950), “A Nation of Strangers” (1972), and “Bowling Alone” (2000) — oh, and “Report of the Country Life Commission” (1909).

False alarms matter, because they distract us from pressing, growing social problems, such as widening inequality, left-behind men of lower education, housing shortages and children living in pockets of violence.

Claude S. Fischer
Berkeley, Calif.
The writer, a professor of sociology of the Graduate School, University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970.”

To the Editor:

I agree with Arthur C. Brooks that feelings of loneliness are becoming more consuming with each generation. As a 16-year-old member of Generation Z, I have often had these feelings of loneliness even though there are many wonderful people in my life. I am not an isolated case; this is a recurring feeling with my peers as well.

I agree that individuals flock to social media to feel a sense of community, but I think that social media itself was the catalyst for this disconnect from the real world. By creating a pseudo-sense of belonging in online groups, perhaps we are more sensitive to the lack of social fulfillment in our offline relationships. Having our eyes glued to our phones instead of observing the people and places around us is obstructing the search for that “Fremont” in our lives.

Sophie Holohan
San Jose, Calif.

To the Editor:

Mr. Brooks, you can’t create that hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling without making a significant investment of time. As Scott Sanders expressed in his book “Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World,” only by spending season after season in a place can you move from being a resident to becoming a steward.

After a decade and a half of travel, I came home a stranger in a strange land and committed to relearning the place. While friends swapped jobs and states every two years, my husband and I have chosen to stay put for almost 20 years — to, in Ben Sasse’s words, “intentionally invest in the places where we actually live.”

We’ve served on community boards, eaten local because the chefs are friends, watched neighbors’ children and puppies grow, filled our walls with pieces from local artists. It has not been glamorous (we live in the now-famed swamp city much mocked in the show “The Good Place”). We’re often jealous of our more light-footed friends.

But the novelty of a new ZIP code won’t produce long-term satisfaction. As our children enter high school, it brings me great joy to see them treasured by people who have known them all their lives. Even better, my kids know how to treasure people and places.

And novelty isn’t hard to find. We visit our itinerant friends in each new locale. They will inevitably share, after a glass of wine, how badly they want to come home.

Anna Jacobson
Jacksonville, Fla.

To the Editor:

As usual, commentators miss the big picture when analyzing the epidemic of loneliness in America. Deep below any formal faith, our real religion continues to be self-reliance and rugged individualism. From our founding, this outlook has made fragmentation inevitable. If we want to change our trajectory, we will have to do what Americans have historically not done well: sacrifice individual achievement for the greater good. Otherwise, the “tragedy of the commons” will continue to unravel us.

Christopher Bailey
Kirkland, Wash.
The writer is a psychiatrist.

To the Editor:

A simple way, at least for this reader, to become actively engaged and therefore forestall loneliness is through volunteer work. In two communities in which I have lived in the last 20 years, by volunteering for local government agencies and small nonprofits I have felt very quickly occupied and embraced by similarly committed neighbors. The seeming lack of volunteerism among younger Americans, and indeed my contemporaries (I am 64), is a cause for alarm. One need only to pick up a phone and ask to be of help. There are never enough ready hands.

Charles T. Clark
Bethany, Conn.