How to solve America’s loneliness crisis

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There are many things Americans disagree on, but one shared concern is loneliness. According to a 2024 American Psychiatric Association survey, about 30 percent of people ages 18 to 34 feel lonely several times a week. This builds on an earlier Harvard University study, conducted amid the pandemic, which found that 36 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely “almost all the time.” While Democrats were more likely to say so than Republicans, the study showed that the epidemic cuts across political, economic, social, cultural, racial and gender lines.

The reasons for this crisis are innumerable. Despite America’s strong recovery, many struggle with the loss of economic control in a world where hard work brings no security or community (something scholar Robert Putnam first brought to light in his book 2000). bowling alone).

Then there is frustration with the pace of technological change (particularly its effects on children) and exhaustion with a culture focused primarily on consumption. All of this has led to what Democratic Senator Chris Murphy has called a “spiritual unraveling,” in which many people feel disconnected and abandoned by society and its leaders.

These issues have become a bipartisan rallying cry for Murphy and Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, who recently teamed up on a nationwide listening tour to explore the types of ideas and legislation that could help combat the problem of loneliness in the United States and its consequences, ranging from higher health care costs to a rise in political extremism. As Hannah Arendt put it in her 1951 book The origins of totalitarianismIsolation and loneliness are preconditions for tyranny, an observation that may come full circle in the United States this November.

While Americans are politically divided, people in places as far away as Utah, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington share “a sense of abandonment,” Murphy told me, “and even humiliation,” as power has shifted. transferred to a smaller number of geographic locations. , people and companies during the last two decades in particular. (This perception is supported by data: corporate concentration is at record levels and socioeconomic outcomes vary wildly depending on the ZIP code in which Americans are born.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many areas of recent bipartisan cooperation – from trade and tariffs to infrastructure spending and limits on foreign ownership of social media – have sought to address a sense of economic and social vulnerability. However, most research on happiness shows that after a certain threshold of middle-class financial security is passed, the good life tends to correlate with relationships: family, friends, and community.

The problem is that in our culture of high-speed, overworked digital capitalism, there is not enough time nor, for many, enough money to provide the security necessary to achieve this. That’s one reason labor activists like Shawn Fain are starting to push for a four-day work week as a way for employees to benefit from some of the huge corporate profits of recent years.

Murphy, who has also advocated for more time off for workers, notes that it is an idea with support from both the left and the right. Politicians as divergent as venture capitalist Blake Masters and liberal Senator Bernie Sanders have argued that one income should be enough to support a family of four and enable participation in civic life. There is growing consensus among political parties on issues such as raising the minimum wage, social media regulation and, to some extent, antitrust measures. All of this falls within the scope of policies that address some of the root causes of loneliness, from economic insecurity and social isolation to a lack of personal agency.

Murphy and Cox plan to publish some of their observations and policy recommendations in an upcoming report on “restoring the value of the common good in American life.” Needless to say, implementation will depend on each location. While the good life might mean more church time in red states and more community volunteering or PTA involvement in blue ones, the point is the same: the balance between individualism and collectivism in America has become too skewed toward first.

This, like inflation, immigration or any other higher-profile election issue, may be behind our national pessimism, even amid the rich world’s broader and faster economic recovery.

I’m all for their effort and think it’s incredibly smart politics for a progressive like Murphy in particular to use words like “spirituality.” The left talks a lot about economic challenges but rarely connects with the spiritual in a country where the majority of people believe in God.

Likewise, as progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz points out in his new book The path to freedom: economy and good society, freedom is something that progressives must incorporate into their messages. After all, America seeks life, liberty, and happiness. While this is language more associated with Republicans, there is no reason the left can’t talk about the “freedom” of breathing clean air or living in decent housing.

A more collaborative conversation about these issues could help alleviate some national loneliness.

rana.foroohar@ft.com

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