In 1966, Paul McCartney famously sang of “all the lonely people,” wondering aloud where they come from. Nearly six decades later, their numbers seem only to have increased; as for their origin, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Zen priest Robert Waldinger has made it a longtime professional concern. “Starting in the nineteen fifties, and going all the way through to today, we know that people have been less and less invested in other people,” he says in the Big Think video above. “In some studies, as many as 60 percent of people will say that they feel lonely much of the time,” a feeling “pervasive across the world, across all age groups, all income groups, all demographics.”
“Having an extensive network of friends is no guarantee against loneliness,” writes the late sociologist Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place. “Nor does membership in voluntary associations, the ‘instant communities’ of our mobile society, ensure against social isolation and attendant feelings of boredom and alienation. The network of friends has no unity and no home base.” He names as a key factor the disappearance, especially in American life since World War II, of “convenient and open-ended socializing — places where individuals can go without aim or arrangement and be greeted by people who know them and know how to enjoy a little time off.”
Oldenburg’s elegy for and defense of “cafés, coffee shops, community centers, general stores, bars,” and other engines of community life, was published in 1989, well before the rise of social media — which Waldinger frames as the latest stage in a process that began with television. As more American homes acquired sets of their own, “there was a decline in investing in our communities. People went out less, they joined clubs less often. They went to houses of worship less often. They invited people over less often.” Then, “the digital revolution gave us more and more screens to look at, and software that was designed specifically to grab our attention, hold our attention, and therefore keep it away from the people we care about.”
We also know, he continues, that “people with strong social bonds are much less likely to die in any given year than people without strong social bonds.” This is a credible claim, given that he happens to direct the now 85-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development. In 2016, we featured Waldinger’s TED Talk on some of its findings here on Open Culture. Before that, we posted a PBS BrainCraft video that considers the Harvard Study of Adult Development along with other research on the contributing factors to happiness, a body of work that, taken together, points to the importance of love — which, even if it isn’t all you need, is certainly something you need. And thus one more Beatles lyric continues to resonate.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.