The Loneliness Myth

Is Facebook making us lonely? No! Sometimes there are actually clear answers to rhetorical headline questions. Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at Berkeley, gets empirical in the Boston Review. First, we're not lonelier or more socially isolated generally:


Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation. When you think back to, say, a century ago, don’t call up some nostalgic Our Town image (although alienation is a theme in that play). Picture more accurately the millions of immigrants and jobless, farm-less Americans trekking from one part of the country to another, out of touch with family and likely to be trekking again the next year.

Second, the Internet isn't leaving us hived off in our separate dark basements staring in unblinking hypnotized anomie at glowing rectangles of sedating alienation:

People using the Internet, most studies show, increase the volume of their meaningful social contacts. E-communications do not generally replace in-person contact. True, serious introverts go online to avoid seeing people, but extroverts go online to see people more often. People use new media largely to enhance their existing relationships—say, by sending pictures to grandma—although a forthcoming study shows that many more Americans are meeting life partners online. Internet dating is especially fruitful for Americans who may face problems finding mates, such as gays and older women. Finally, people tell researchers that electronic media have enriched their personal relationships.

People typically turn new technologies into devices for doing what they have always wanted to do. And people like to stay in touch. A century ago, Americans, especially women, turned two new technologies marketed for other purposes, the telephone and automobile, into “technologies of sociability.” 

With all due respect to Michael Sandel, this is how one reasons about social life: with evidence.

Here's a question. Why are we so prone to thinking things are going to hell in a handbasket? (Also: what's a handbasket?) As Fischer observes at the outset of his piece, we seem to think we've been getting lonelier for well over a half-century. But we haven't been. In a smart review of Larry Lessig's Republic Lost, Ed Lopez notes that Lessig is the latest in a long line of intellectuals alarmed about corruption and distrust of public institutions, all of whom seem to think that there's something new and especially alarming about corruption and distrust these days. But once you actually stop to think about it, as Lopez does, it looks like same ol' shit. The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this. 

None of this is to deny that things get worse. Sometimes things get worse! The music kids listen to these days, for example. Just awful. No doubt there's evidence to this effect. 

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Here’s how to curb your impatience once and for all, and finally feel less stressed

"Having a high level of patience often isn't something that comes naturally; instead, it is something that improves over time"

Personal Growth

You're waiting for the elevator at the office, sitting in a meeting that's late to start, or checking your phone with the hope that a co-worker finally responds to your email.

Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less