July 3, 2006

‘Feeling Isolated? You’re Not Alone’

Columnist Ellen Goodman turns her attention to the recent study "Social Isolation in America" which, she noted, discovered that "one-fourth of Americans report that they have nobody to talk to about 'important matters.' Another quarter report they are just one person away from nobody. . . . In only two decades, from 1985 to 2004, the number of people who have no one to talk to has doubled. And the number of confidants of the average American has gone down from three to two."

Why do so many of us have fewer people in our close inner circle? Some blame time pressures of an ever-expanding workday; others point to technology, which allows us to "communicate" at our keyboards and on cell phones instead of making more face-to-face, personal connections.

I think those play significant parts -- in fact, the merging of the two trends becomes an additional issue, since it's harder to be "away" from work or fully present with people around you if you're constantly minding your BlackBerry. I'd argue that the design of some newer communities also contributes to lower likelihood of getting close to your neighbors. If you live in a McMansion where the most prominent street-facing feature is a massive garage door, and you only interact with your immediate surroundings in an enclosed, tank-sized SUV, it's harder to make connections with your neighbors.

It's no accident that recent ensemble-cast shows like Seinfeld and Friends took place in Manhattan. It's harder to imagine an exurb with 2-acre zoning where a variety of neighbors are casually and regularly dropping in and out of each other's homes.

The average American's decreasing number of close friends is a serious social policy issue. "These are the kinds of people that you can call on when you have times of trouble, if you really need help or someone to move in with for three months after Katrina hits your house. . . . We've got less of a safety net," Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociologist and coauthor of "Social Isolation in America," told Globe reporter Scott Allen.

"The study is a vindication for the Harvard author of 'Bowling Alone,' the provocative book published six years ago that portrayed an increasingly lonely society based on trends from the decline of dinner parties to lower voter turnout and falling participation in bowling leagues," Allen wrote in an article published June 23.

"[Bowling Alone author Robert] Putnam said the new study, based on a comparison of data from national surveys in 1985 and 2004, captures escalating social isolation that began around 1965 as the rise of television, two-career households, and increasingly farflung suburbia combined to destroy old, close-knit neighborhoods. Putnam believes that growing isolation helps explain the escalating rate of depression and other signs of worsening mental and physical health.

" 'As a risk factor for premature death, social isolation is as big an independent risk factor for death as smoking,' said Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. He said that the drop-off in confidants measured by Smith-Lovin and her coauthors was even more precipitous than he anticipated."

I believe many of us crave not only close friends, but a so-called "third place" -- outside of home or work -- where we can be with a group of friends. Such a place was portrayed in the popular series Cheers, a bar where "everybody knows your name."

However, when we pay so little attention and devote so few resources to public space, instead concentrating solely on private space, too often the result is that everyone has their own isolated private homes but interactions are fewer. Even when the third place is a private enterprise, it needs a thriving public neighborhood around it to flourish.

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