Loneliness isn't paradoxical
People with more money do more stuff and have more friends
Loneliness is a serious social problem, but a lot of recent commentary on the topic seems only loosely based on what we actually know about it. I was struck, for example, by a recent Nicholas Kristof column in which he describes a paradox, writing that “while we (along with other primates) evolved to be social creatures, wealth drives us toward solitude. When we have the resources, we stop sleeping eight to a hut and build a big house with high walls, and each family member has a private bedroom and bathroom — and then to afford the mortgage we work so hard that we never manage to have meals together.”
Everyone loves a good paradox.
As best I can tell, though, rates of loneliness are much higher among poorer Americans than among richer ones. Kristof is presumably aware of this — the article appears in a series “examining the interwoven crises devastating working-class America” — but the temptation of the putative paradox is too great.
And I’ve noticed a broader trend in which people start by talking about a social problem that’s concentrated among economically downscale Americans — teen depression and suicide, for example — but then immediately engage in debates about upscale Americans’ lifestyle choices. As a business decision, I understand that perfectly well. The kinds of people who read The New York Times are the kinds of people who are likely to either live in a giant suburban home or have friends they disapprove of who have moved to a giant suburban home. The kinds of people who read the New York Times are either helicopter parents or else they have friends they don’t approve of who are helicopter parents. But if the actual crisis of loneliness is primarily among lower-income and less-educated people, then it’s unlikely that living in big houses is a major cause.
Which is a particular problem in this case because I see two persistent mistakes that people tend to make when talking about loneliness.
One is conflating loneliness — a lack of emotional closeness with other human beings — with the idea of being physically alone. And the other is making assertions about trends over time that just aren’t supported by the data. If loneliness were aloneness and if loneliness were clearly increasing over time, then the fact that we’ve come to occupy more square feet per person would be a good explanation for the rise in loneliness. But neither of those things is true.
Loneliness isn’t aloneness
I remember so vividly the first conference I went to post-Covid and what an amazingly good time I had. To an extent that’s because it’s a good conference. But to an extent it’s because the Covid pause in socializing was really annoying. After a long break, it was just great to get back to chit-chat with casual acquaintances, to “hey, it’s nice to finally meet you” stuff with people I only know from the internet and low-stakes bullshitting.
Which is just to say that while I’m not a particularly extroverted person, I’m not such an introvert either — I’m a pretty normal person whose life is improved by regular socializing but who also enjoys some “me time” now and again.
Some people are more to one side or another of this spectrum, but crucially, this is not what loneliness is about. Introverted people can and do have very close, meaningful friendships, and extremely outgoing people can feel profoundly lonely, even in a crowd. Indeed, feeling lonely while around other people can be particularly alienating because the physical presence of other people drives home your lack of connection. On the UCLA loneliness inventory questionnaire, five of the 20 questions are premised on the idea that you’re not literally alone:
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