Loneliness takes hold in a populous nation

In bleak nursing homes and vibrant college dorms, in crowded cities and spread-out suburbs, Americans confront an ailment with no single cause or cure. Some call it social isolation or disconnectedness. Often, it’s just plain loneliness.

An age-old ailment, to be sure, and yet by various measures—census figures on one-person households, a new study documenting Americans’ shrinking circle of intimate friends—it is worsening.

It seems ironic, even to those who are affected.
The nation has never been more populous, soon to reach the 300-million mark. And it has never been more connected—by phone, e-mail, instant message, SMS and on and on. Yet so many are alone in the crowd.

“People are increasingly busy,” said Margaret Gibbs, a psychologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “We’ve become a society where we expect things instantly, and don’t spend the time it takes to have real intimacy with another person.”

Some Americans are making a new commitment, getting reconnected in groups or one-on-one and combating a phenomenon that can take a heavy toll on communities and individuals.

In its most pronounced forms, loneliness is considered a serious, even life-threatening, condition that heightens the risks of heart disease and depression. A sense of isolation can strike at almost any age, in any demographic sector—parents struggling to adjust to their grown children having moved away, divorcees unable to rebuild a social life, even seemingly self-confident college students.

John Powell, a psychologist at the University of Illinois counselling centre, says it’s common for incoming freshmen to stay in their rooms, chatting by computer with high-school friends rather than venturing out to get-acquainted activities on campus. “The frequency of contact and volume of contact does not necessarily translate into the quality of contact,” he said.

The trend toward isolation surfaced in the last United States census figures, which show that one-quarter of the nation’s households—27,2-million of them—consisted of just one person, compared with 10% in 1950.

In June, an authoritative study in the American Sociological Review found that the average American had only two close friends in whom they would confide on important matters, down from an average of three in 1985. The number of people who said they had no such confidant soared from 10% in 1985 to nearly 25%

in 2004; an additional 19% said they had only one confidant—often their spouse.

“That may be the most worrisome thing,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who co-authored the study. “If you lose that one person, because the relationship declines or the person dies, you have no one to support you.”

The study suggested an array of possible causes—including an increase in working/commuting hours and expanding use of the internet to stay in touch with other people, lessening the need for face-to-face contacts.

“We e-mail each other rather than calling or meeting, so there can be a sense of connection but also a loss of actual time spent with friends and families,” Gibbs said.—Sapa-AP

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