Monday, June 26, 2006

The Question About Sebastian Mallaby

"Why so lonesome?" WaPo columnist Sebastian Mallaby asks.

The question about loneliness is: Why do people do this to themselves? Why do Americans, who reported an average of nearly three close friends in 1985, now report an average of just over two? And why does one in four have nobody with whom to discuss personal issues? This is the age of Oprah and MySpace, of public emoting on television and the Web. Apparently people watch "Friends" but don't actually have many.

When the new loneliness numbers appeared Friday in the American Sociological Review, some experts cautioned that the problem can be overstated. Americans say they feel close to an average of 15 others, according to Barry Wellman and Jeffrey Boase of the University of Toronto. But there's a difference between extensive networks and deep ones.

Oh my gosh, REALLY, Sebastian? I would never have known!

Does this idiot really think people don't know the difference between acquaintances and close friends?

Even more to the point, does he actually believe that people choose to be lonely? That they deliberately court loneliness and seek it out?

If you get sick, stressed or just plain sad, you are going to want the sort of friend you can rely on. Maybe you'll be able to convert an acquaintance into a soul mate when you discover you need one. But this just-in-time approach to emotional crises isn't always going to work. Look at the way the slow decline of friendship has been mirrored by the rise of emotional problems. Over the past half-century, the prevalence of unipolar depression in affluent countries has jumped tenfold.

People's myopia on friendship is like their myopia on saving. They know that jobs are insecure, that a health problem can cause bankruptcy, that retirement is fabulously expensive; but the household savings rate has fallen below zero. Equally, people know that spouses aren't immortal and that divorce is common. But nearly one in 10 -- a much higher share than in 1985 -- reports that their husband or wife is the only person they confide in.

And those are the lucky ones. Some people actually don't have even a husband or wife to confide in. Imagine that!

People are taking these financial and emotional risks even as they neurotically avoid other risks. Today's consumers buy bike helmets and ski helmets and antibacterial soap; they fret about partially hydrogenated fats and consume less tobacco than their parents. But by some reckonings social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking.

You can see how this American isolationism sets in. Modern society creates the tools that allow you not to save -- if you have to pay for the kids' college, you can refinance your home -- while doing little to change the basic need to save for old age and misfortune. In the same way, modern society creates tools that extend your casual networks -- e-mail, instant messaging, social-networking Web sites -- while doing nothing to remove the basic need for soul mates.

Meanwhile, people work more hours. They commute longer because they've moved to the exurbs in search of larger homes; they've got spacious entertainment rooms but no mental space for entertaining. And then there's the subtle effect of the culture. "Family time" is endlessly extolled, and lovers emit poetry and song about every facet of their relationships. But when was the last time a rock singer or a new man waxed lyrical about friendship?

Yet the biggest reason for American loneliness, and perhaps the clue to some kind of cure, lies in path dependency. People know that tending to friendship is important, but their behavior follows the path created by countless other decisions -- and friendship is neglected. Social science experiments reveal lots of behavior of this kind. People who agree with their doctors that they need hip replacements seldom get around to having the procedure.

There are ways to beat path dependency, however. Another experiment has shown how undergraduates who agree to get a tetanus shot seldom actually do so, but if you make them an appointment and hand them a map to the clinic, the odds that they'll comply leap tenfold. Savings habits are equally sensitive to slight tweaks in incentives. Invite workers to sign up for 401(k) pensions and many will procrastinate. Tell workers they are part of the program unless they opt out and the participation rate rockets.

Can Americans be prodded to invest more in friendships? It's hard to imagine American companies organizing regular Japanese-style drinking sessions for the staff; it's hard to believe that a French-style cap on working hours would do more than encourage yet more lonely Web surfing.

So ending loneliness is as straightforward a proposition as putting money in a savings account or going to the doctor for a tetanus shot. It's just an issue of making the time; set aside a few hours every week to end your loneliness by shopping for a best friend or a family or a loving partner.

Sebastian, I'm sorry, but this was just exactly the most perfectly wrong day for your cluelessness to catch my eye. I spent five hours this afternoon and evening in a Bronx hospital after losing my balance while I had my foot up on a bench trying to tie a shoelace, and falling backwards and hitting my head on the ground. (I have not been getting much sleep lately, because of schoolwork, and that may have explained my klutziness.) I didn't lose consciousness, but I was horribly dizzy and nauseated. Without going into the entire hellish story, the EMTs insisted on taking me to a local hospital, even though this was the Bronx, which is totally unfamiliar territory to me, and I had no way of getting back to campus, where my car was parked. And there was no one to go with me (other than the EMTs) and no one to pick me up.

Sebastian Mallaby needs to know that I did not choose to be sitting in an ambulance on my way to a hospital I'd never heard of before in a neighborhood I didn't know, with no one I could call and cry into the phone to who would say, "Hold on, I'm coming right now." I thought about my ex-husband, who is very happily remarried. I don't begrudge him that, but I envied him when I thought that if this had happened to him, he could have called his wife and she would have come running.

Am I lonely? You bet I am. Loneliness is my native environment. Most of the time I don't pay that much attention to it; it's too familiar to be remarkable. But at times like this afternoon, when I'm sitting in an ambulance with an oxygen mask over my face, sobbing uncontrollably because it's just hit me that I'm going to the hospital and I'm missing class and I don't know if it's something really serious, and the only person there with me is the EMT, who can give me first aid but not TLC. When you are in a crisis that is terrifying and you realize you are in it alone and that's just the way it is, that is one of life's more painful experiences.

Very fortunately, I turned out to have no adverse after-effects from the fall. My blood sugar was normal, my EKG was normal, and the CAT scan I had was normal. I suspect the extraordinary nausea I felt, that would not go away even after the medics had arrived, was an anxiety attack that was triggered by the accident itself and the stress I was under because of missing class and being alone. Let it be said: I am relieved. But that does not change the fact that I went through this experience with no one there who cared about me for support.

Believe me, Sebastian, I did not choose not to have close friends, or family nearby, or a husband or a boyfriend. If I knew how to change it, I would. So go ahead and make that appointment at the loneliness clinic and show me the map that will tell me how to get there. I promise you, they won't have the vaccine when I get there.

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