Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Decline of Friendship in America

Is friendship in decline in America? New reports indicate that the answer is yes. As more Americans drive more cars more often to more homes in the suburbs, to relax in front of more big-screen televisions in more supersized living rooms, or drive to more suburban shopping centers where the chances of real social interaction are reduced more and more... they're finding that they have less of one thing: friends. More materialism, it appears, produces fewer valuable social interactions, fewer true friends, certainly fewer soulmates. You can be materially rich while spiritually, morally, and socially poor.

I can definitely trace the connections here: Fewer friends, more republicans. Friends don't let friends vote Republican -- but what about those people who don't have any friends? Yup, hard to stop them from going to the dark side. More computers, more computer programmers, more 16-hour days -- fewer social opportunities, fewer relationships, fewer friends. More republicans.

How to reverse this decline? I could think of a thousand ways, and most of them are nothing new. Stop building isolating suburbs that construct a friend-free antiseptic, antisocial environment. Stop building communities for cars. Start building communities for people. Start investing more in transit, in transit-oriented development, in tree plantings, in pubs, in coffee houses, in plazas, in squares, in parks... in concerts, concert halls and band practice areas. Stop the war on culture, and start the rennaissance of community.

Is beer the answer? Do people make friends when they walk to their neighborhood pub a couple of times a week and drink a locally-brewed ale or lager? Sure, beer is a social lubricant -- but can it also assist with creating more meaningful, lasting friendships, rather than just aid in finding drinking buddies? Perhaps yes. Or, perhaps it just creates the environment, the setting, where friends can meet to maintain their friendship, which is certainly more important, and really gets down to what we're talking about here. Americans probably already know plenty of people who should be their friends, but they just haven't talked to them in years. If they would just ask them to meet at the pub for a pint a little more often, perhaps the situation could be remedied... especially if it's within walking distance of home!!!

See below for the full original story from the SacBee. Note that, while carpooling may make you happy, I think it's just a neat little band-aid solution, and I fully stand by what I say above as the more effective long-term remedy!! So, move to a walkable neighborhood, buy a building in a nice, accessible location where other people nearby can also walk to it, and start up a microbrewpub. It could help us save America from ourselves!


begin newspaper article:
Sebastian Mallaby: The decline of friendship

Story appeared in Web section, The Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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. Twenty years ago, remarks Princeton's Eldar Shafir, a concerned European might have prescribed an emergency program of cafe construction: a reverse Marshall Plan for cappuccinos.

But now Starbucks has run that experiment for us. American caffeine addicts demand lattes to go — or to sip as they enjoy the company of Wi-Fi-enabled laptops.

But there's one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton's Daniel Kahneman found that commuting — generally alone, and generally by car — is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

So here's my slogan for 2008: Gas taxes make you happy.

** end of newspaper article ***

endnote from Garlynn:

OK, I can go with that slogan, but we'd better use those gas taxes to build transit, build transit oriented communities, and encourage more pubs and microbrews in this country! More small businesses and more town centers, fewer chain stores, less driving and fewer "suburbs" that lack a sense of place. That's how we're all get our friends back. And it could cut down on the sheer numbers of those pesky republicans, too!!!


Tony said...

Hear, hear! I've been noticing the same thing, actually, not only down here but in Canada as well.

Linda said...

This is awesome observation. The first step to cure is to admit you are lonely and you want to get out of loneliness and depression.

Anonymous said...

Hi I am Zsuzsi from Hungary, reading this blog nearly 3 years later when it was written , but I gotta tell ya there are really good observations in it. Not to mention the fact that the topic is just as much timely as it was in 2006.
Friendship is a thing that develops throughout long time. It takes years to get to know someone as much to call him or her as real friend or soul mates. u gotta live through certain situations together, you gotta spend valuable time together, till u can develop trust in each other and till u can say that u can rely on each other. This is what usually missing. People dont devote enough time to each other, dont spend time on getting to know their mates or te people around them. It is common in Hungary to call Americans superficial, and lacking real deep relationships.I think and I hope it s bullshit. Hungarians can be just as superficial in terms of their relationships than any other nation. I dont think its about the culture, much more it depends on one's personality, on the fact if someone is open enough to others, and being as intelligent as to realize that friendship is a ceratin relationship which needs the equal participation and effort of both parties. Yes it s a though work to build it up. How deep a friendship is, always depends on the people involved. U have to have interest in the other person and put a a bit of effort to get to know the other one. Yes I say effort cos we r not in the kindergarten anymore where u have nothing else to do just to make friends and play with ur fellas at the playground. Once u start working it is much more difficult to develop new real friendships. People start to stick to their all frinds saying that it s no time and no situations when u can actually can get to know the other one a bit more. Thats true, it is more difficult, that's why I emphasize the need of effort. Obviously not everyone feels in this way or they dont consider it as important as I do. But I wonder who these people can rely on when they feel lonely, depressed, or just lacking someone to talk to or share an experience with. Yeh they can go to their pyschologist, but in all honesty, I wld rather tell my inner feelings someone close to me than to a complete stranger.
So I believe in friendship an I got some very close friends too, although I am a bit freaked out at the moment how it s gonna be from now on as I m heading to enter the working life. I really hope that I will still meet people who consider human realtionships as important as I do. cos u can earn as much money that u can have a huge palace on the beach with a big car in the garage, but whats the point if u dont have any friends to invite for ur housewarming party or who u can share the happiness that u feel when u can finally afford all these things to buy for u.
Hope u ll still read this comment and if u got something to say about it u can find me on Facebook as ZSuzsanna Farkas, (goldsmiths college)

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's a great article from the SacBee! I know this comment is about five years later but still, I think it was a pretty well-written piece. Nice find!!!

Garlynn Woodsong said...


The key to building social networks after college is to become involved in a "third place" of some sort... the first place being home and the second work/school. Traditionally, churches and pubs are two examples of third places; however, a Burning Man camp, a protest or political movement, an artists' collective or a bicycle workshop cooperative are all examples of third places.

So, go start or join a co-op... or, just become a regular at your neighborhood pub, at the very least... but be sure to walk or ride your bike to get there! :-)