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The Lonely Crowd of The 21st Century

"Americans, plugged in and on the move, are confiding in their pets, their computers, and their spouses. What they need is to rediscover the value of friendship. . . .

. . . today 'friends' are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a 'lite' alternative to the caloric meshugaas of family life.

But in restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer. . . .

. . .in our culture we take friendship—a state of strong mutual affection in which sex or kinship isn’t primary—far too lightly. We’re good at currying contacts and we may have lots of pals .. . .

But we live now in a climate in which friends appear dispensable. While most of us wouldn’t last long outside the intricate web of interdependence that supplies all our physical needs—imagine no electricity, money, or sewers—we’ve come to demand of ourselves truly radical levels of emotional self-sufficiency. In America today, half of adults are unmarried, and more than a quarter live alone. As Robert Putnam showed in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, civic involvement and private associations were on the wane at the end of the 20th century. Several years later, social scientists made headlines with a survey showing that Americans had a third fewer nonfamily confidants than two decades earlier. A quarter of us had no such confidants at all.

In a separate study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), surveyed more than 3,000 randomly chosen Americans and found they had an average of four 'close social contacts' with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. But only half of these contacts were solely friends; the rest were a variety of others, including spouses and children.

Here, as on so many fronts, we often buy what we need. The affluent commonly hire confidants in the form of talk therapists, with whom they may maintain enduring (if remunerated) relationships conducted on a first-name basis. The number of household pets has exploded throughout the Western world, suggesting that not just dogs but cats, rats, and parakeets are often people’s best friends. John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who studies loneliness, says he’s convinced that more Americans are lonely—not because we have fewer social contacts, but because the ones we have are more harried and less meaningful. . . . .

Sympathy’s long-ago advocates were onto something when they reckoned friendship one of life’s highest pleasures, and they felt themselves freer than we do to revel in it. It’s time for us to ease up on friending, rethink our downgrade of ex-lovers to “just” friends, and resist moving far away from everyone we know merely because it rains less elsewhere." More

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