Alone Again, Naturally?

There’s a loneliness epidemic in America.

That’s the conclusion made by Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, citing a recent study by health insurer Cigna which says most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships.


Stop and think about that. Here’s another showstopper from the survey:

“Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. The survey, which charts social isolation using a common measure known as the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale, shows that loneliness is worse in each successive generation.”

At first, the survey feels counterintuitive. In the age of social media, where we are able to access “friends” 24/7 regardless of location via Facebook, Instagram and other platforms it would seem we would feel more connected than ever.

But 2018 was the year in which we finally stopped long enough to truly consider social media’s impact on our lives and society. Maybe instead of making us closer, it is driving wedges based on our political beliefs. Maybe instead of deepening friendships it has made them hollow—as we share only the best part of our lives in an endless search for “likes” and “retweets.”

I suspect I’m like most people in that I have mixed feelings about social media. I enjoy being able to stay in touch– even nominally– with old friends, classmates, teachers, co-workers and relatives who live far away. But I’ve seen cyber bullying, real “fake news” and manipulation as well. I’ve seen the worst aspects of social media take a toll on relationships and actually prevent people from speaking their minds or participating in civic life for fear of being trolled.

So when you look at the full spectrum, you can see where loneliness can take root.

And it’s not just social media—it’s media in general. Talk radio, cable TV and some print publications peddle an “us” versus “them” narrative which serves to put us in silos where we only interact with people who agree with us.

I find myself avoiding conversations unless I know where people are relative to politics. It seems we are locked into our own set of facts, which ought to alarm everyone because it’s hard to find compromise or consensus if you can’t even agree on objective facts.

All of this leads to a sense of isolation and I guess loneliness. I have my tribe, you have yours and there’s a sense that we share a house that’s divided and we all know (or do we?) what Lincoln said about a house divided.

Brooks and others who have written about this subject also lament the changing nature of work—where the “gig” economy replaces the camaraderie of the office where relationships evolve over years of working side by side. It’s hard to build friendships when you’re driving an Uber or hopping from gig to gig.

Too many Americans don’t feel “rooted” in community these days, according to the research.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently wrote a book about this subject. In “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” Senator Sasse writes about “thick” communities, places that where people have real histories and deep relationships with each other. He describes the feeling as a “hometown gym on a Friday night.”

I’ve heard variations of that sentiment over the years regarding Delray. People would say they go downtown and no longer see anyone they know.

I had a colleague on the city commission years ago who used to say that the difference between Delray and Boca was simple: if you asked someone from Delray where they lived they’d answer “Delray.” But if you asked someone from Boca, they’d give their neighborhood such as “Woodfield” or “The Polo Club.”
I don’t know that to be true or not, but it’s an interesting thought.

When your downtown once lacked vibrancy, you actually take pride when you visit and see a crowd of strangers. Hey, at least there’s a crowd. But now I can see what people mean when they long for the days of going downtown and bumping into friends and neighbors.

I am a firm believer in community building—it’s important. It’s vital and if it is missing you end up a lonely place.

In the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, Delray Beach became an All America City and a different place because the number one mission of civic leaders was to build community.

There was an active effort to help neighborhoods form associations. There was an active effort to involve youth in activities such as the Youth Council. There was a huge amount of resources devoted to “community policing”, visioning, recruiting people for advisory boards and creating a large volunteer pool for our police and fire departments, non-profits, schools etc. There were town hall meetings, charrettes and roundtable discussions.

I think it made a difference.

I think it built friendships and civic capacity. It may have eased a sense of loneliness and isolation too.

Special events—which became so controversial and maligned—also played a role. It seems like everyone went to First Night on New Year’s Eve and Art and Jazz on the Avenue was something you just had to attend because as you strolled the avenue you’d see a lot of people you knew and cared about.

Today, there are some really good groups trying to build community: Wise Tribe, Community Greening, Old School Square, the Historical Society, the Beach Property Owners Association to name just a few.

In his New York Times op-ed, Brooks reaches out to Senator Sasse because he’s moving to a new state and he fears being isolated and rootless. Here’s the advice he gets. It something I hope we all heed.

“(Sasse) told me I had it all wrong — that moving back home and going to the gym on Friday aren’t actually the point; rather, the trick is “learning how to intentionally invest in the places where we actually live.” In other words, being a member of a community isn’t about whether I have a Fremont (Sasse’s hometown). It isn’t about how I feel about any place I have lived, nor about my fear of isolation in a new city. It is about the neighbor I choose to be in the community I wind up calling my home.


And there lies the challenge to each of us in a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation. Each of us can be happier, and America will start to heal, when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.”