Lonely America

In just 20 years, the number of Americans without a single close friend has nearly tripled -- to a quarter of the population.

A depressing new study released today proves that people in the United States are becoming more isolated and more lonely at a rapid pace.

In the new study, only 50.6% had a close relationship with someone who wasn't their spouse or relative -- down from 73.2% in the mid-1980s -- and 24.6% had nobody at all, compared to just 10% in 1985.

In 1985, Americans on average counted about three confidants, including relatives. Now they have only two, on average.

The huge jump in people having only a family member as confidant doesn't just make people's worlds smaller; it literally kills them quicker than those with non-relative friends.

Those who counted only their spouse as a confidant nearly doubled, from 5% to 9%. Researchers say these people are setting themselves up for trouble, because spouses often leave or die.

People who have close friends are happier and healthier than lonely folks, much more engaged in their communities and what's going on in the world, and have a crucial "safety net" when things are bad. The researchers point to Hurricane Katrina for an awful example of what happens to people who lack friends.

"That image of people on roofs after Katrina resonates with me, because those people did not know someone with a car," said sociologist Lynn Smith-Lovin, one of the study's authors.

White people with money reported more friends than poor non-whites. But all groups reported fewer friends than they did in 1985.

The survey shows dramatic drops in the number of neighbors and co-workers Americans consider as friends.

Sociologists are blaming the usual suspects for America's loneliness epidemic: long commutes to work for both parents, television and the Internet. But with the exception of the Internet, all those things were just as prevalent in 1985, when the last study was done.

Television is a refuge for the people with no friends. They can watch strangers talk about personal problems on such programs as "Oprah" and "Jerry Springer," and for most of the 1990s the most popular TV series was about young people who actually had friends.

Americans have been losing friends since the mid-1960s. Until that point, the 20th Century saw increases in friends and confidants for most Americans.

The survey, published by the American Sociological Review (PDF), was done by interviewing 1,500 people in person.


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