In a recent Review piece in the New York Times, Ruth Whippman, the author of a book on anxiety in the USA, had some interesting things to say about happiness and loneliness. She noted that today in our individualistic culture, the idea that happiness must come from within, through a journey of self-discovery “rather than [as] the natural byproduct of engaging with the world”, is becoming a “truism”. While we increasingly seek happiness inside ourselves, we are spending less time with others. According to Whippman:
“Americans in general are spending less and less time actually connecting with other people. Nearly half of all meals eaten in this country are now eaten alone. Teenagers and young millennials are spending less time just ‘hanging out’ with their friends than any generation in recent history, replacing real-world interaction with smartphones.”
The average American spends less than four minutes a day (24 hours a year) “hosting and attending social events”: all types of parties and other organised social events. The average American also spends just over 30 minutes a day on “socialising and communicating” with another adult a day. (This is where the communication is the main activity rather than incidental to something else, like working.) This is a concern, because the research tells us that happiness does not come from within but from outside ourselves. In fact, from other people.
“Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a “necessary condition for happiness,” meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.”
Rather than withdrawing into ourselves through mindfulness etc, we should be seeking others out. Not only will we be happier, we will also be healthier: a lack of social connection carries with it a risk of premature death comparable to that of smoking.
This link between loneliness and fatality rates can be linked to the “deaths of despair” that we’ve talked about before on this blog (and here). The life expectancy of Americans has been affected, and the impact on middle-class white Americans is especially severe. In terms of the opioid crisis which President Trump spoke about last week, the link between opioid overdose deaths, education and not being married. David French in the National Review recently wrote,
“As the report [by the Social Capital Project] notes, married and widowed Americans account for 68 percent of the population but only 28 percent of overdose deaths. ‘In contrast, never-married and divorced Americans made up about 32 percent of the population, but accounted for 71 percent of all opioid overdose deaths.’”
If one is alone, then one is less happy. If one is less happy, then the relief of a narcotic haze looks more appealing. While we can spend money on rehabilitation centres, is anything being done about supporting marriage and the family? Encouraging a husband to stay with his wife. Encouraging a young man to stay with his girlfriend who has got pregnant and to marry her? French concludes:
“Of course addiction can strike anyone, but the data are overwhelming. Not every category of American is equally vulnerable. Though an intact family isn’t a foolproof shield against hopelessness, despair, and addiction, it’s still a shield. Do we want to combat the opioid crisis? If so, let’s start in the home. Let’s start with a mom and dad who love each other and stay together — through good times and bad. Let’s start with a culture that celebrates marriage and a community that encourages fidelity.”
All of which makes findings like the increased lack of familial connections in America so much more important and depressing.