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Okay, so on Tuesday we talked about loneliness and social media. But now I want to go back to my husband’s original comment: “Loneliness is the endemic disease of our time.” Specifically, I want to explore how loneliness now is different than it’s been in the past.First off, I imagine that there have been lonely people and lonely moments in all times. I don’t want to invalidate this truth, merely turn the spotlight onto the last century or so, when American society has undergone what I’m guessing is a fairly radical shift.

Once upon a time, people didn’t move around as much as they do now. It was normal to spend your whole life in the same town, or if not the same town, then the same region. As a result (and possibly also as a cause), families tended to stick together and consist of many generations and branches. Also as a result, people grew up together and had an easier time staying in touch as adults. If you lived in “Small Town America”, you might know most or even all of the people who lived in your town, at least by sight. Between these geographically close family units and towns (and add in churches to make society even more close-knit), many social needs were met.

What changed? My husband tells me that many families split apart during the Great Depression, when people had to move to find work. This is when the idea of the nuclear family (parents and their children) emerged. More people moved to big cities, in which it is easy to find anonymity (even if you don’t want it). More people began to go away to college, and only some would return to their hometowns afterwards; the rest would go where the jobs and opportunities were, or follow their romantic partners (either back to their hometowns or to where they had a good job). In 1937, 73% of Americans said they were members of a church, as opposed to between 63-65% now. But estimates are that in the past few years, as few as 20% of Americans actually attend church every Sunday (40% is the high end of the range); regular attendance does, of course, provide the strongest community ties.

So this is our new reality. None of my extended family lives in my local area, and as a result I’ve never gotten to know them particularly well. I don’t belong to a church that gives me a social safety net. I live about 60 miles from where I grew up, which is just far enough away to make in-personal social interactions difficult (especially since so many other people have moved away). I live about 40 miles from where I went to college, and many of my college friends moved into the same area, which is one reason I ended up settling here. I hear complaints all the time from people in their 20s and 30s who share how difficult it is for them to meet people and make friends now that they’re out of school (not to mention the dating problem). Plus, at least here in Silicon Valley, it is fashionable (or maybe just reality) that everyone is extremely busy almost all the time, making personal interaction even more challenging due to scheduling difficulties.

Meanwhile, many of my friends live elsewhere: in Southern California, Arizona, Chicago, the Denver area, Arkansas, Texas, Toronto, and even Australia.

Taking all of this into account, it’s not surprising that people might be experiencing a greater sense of isolation, is it?

Into this void, we’ve seen first e-mail, then cell phones with no extra fees for long distance calls, and then social media, internet dating, and Skype emerge. And thank goodness, because I think that we as a society needed something that would make connecting feasible again, that would allow us both to maintain far-flung friendships and to meet new friends. Social media has become as popular as it is because it fills our need for community. Even huddled alone in our separate suburban houses (or city apartments, or the sparsely populated countryside), we can still be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Of course, for writers (who work alone so much of the time) and people who work from home (an expanding group), possessing some means through which to connect becomes even more critical.

Is loneliness really the endemic disease of our time? We’ve certainly seen a shift to a more isolated social model, but now we’re using technology to try to alleviate this problem. I certainly notice the difference in my day-to-day interactions, if I compare now with five years ago. What about you? How has your life changed?

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