The Lonely American presents a very plausible thesis that builds on the ideas of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. It suggests that people in America have fewer social connections that they did in the past, and this is causing pervasive problems. Now self-reliance has become an ideology, and when people can't solve their own problems they are ashamed, concluding that they must have a mental health problem and need help from a professional. The lack of social support reduces the quality of people's lives and makes genuine mental illnesses such as substance abuse more difficult to deal with. The authors are psychiatrists and so they are ready to see psychological problems as real, but they argue that many people's problems are social in origin, and could be solved if people had more close friends with whom to talk over their problems.
It is a difficult argument to concretely prove but Olds and Schwartz do supply evidence that makes their claims likely. They address a variety of social institutions, but their main focus are friendships, marriage, and single people. There is strong evidence that people do have fewer friends because of the structure of American society and the demands on them to work so hard. Even married people are lonelier than before. While the studies of marriage are less solid, there's good reason to believe that marriage is now often meant to supply people's main social support, and often people do not talk about their marriages or their lives with anyone else, and hardly have the time to talk to their spouses. Now one quarter of the population has talked to no one about something of importance to them in the last six months; this social disconnection is bound to have a profound effect on their lives.
The book talks a little about moves to improve social connections: there's little evidence that the Internet really gives people the social support they want when people interact with anonymous strangers, but it can provide a way to connect with people who one already knows. For example, there are moves to provide social spaces in apartment blocks with more communal living space so people find it easier to meet others. This is a start, but I would have liked more discussion of urban planning and the problem of commercialized social spaces in malls. One of the most striking aspects of life in the USA in most towns is that most city downtowns are devoted to office space and are dead at night and the weekends, and most people go out to the malls for their entertainment. It would be interesting to get more information on whether other cultures are experiencing similar problems, or whether less materialistic societies maintain their quality of life.
Nevertheless, The Lonely American is a valuable book that will resonate with most readers: when reading it, I kept on thinking of people I knew who I wanted to show different passages to. Furthermore, it is one of the few books that manages to make social psychology appear interesting and able to tell us something that we did not already know.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.