Her latest book The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That's Pulling Apart touches on the loneliness that is ever-present in our society and ways we can deal with it.
Why did you want to write this book?
Four years ago, a few things happened at roughly the same time that made me want to write this book. The first was that increasing numbers of my students were confiding in me that they felt lonely and isolated. This was a new phenomenon. So I took note of it. At the same time, in my academic research, I started interviewing right-wing populist voters. One thing that kept on coming across from their stories was how lonely they felt.
Then I bought an Alexa and felt that she had become a member of the household which got me thinking about what came to be called “the loneliness economy”, an entire economy that was emerging before the pandemic, to deliver connection.
It was those three very, very different insights that made me dig much more into loneliness and really make sense of what was going on. I began to realize how pervasive it was in the United States even before the pandemic. One in five Americans said that they felt lonely always or often. One in five millennials said that they didn't have a single friend at all.
I wanted to understand how we got here, and more importantly, what we could do about it. What was loneliness? And what could we do to reconnect? That became my mission. An interesting thing I noticed was that COVID wasn’t bringing anything new to the table when it came to loneliness, it was just accelerating the fissures that already were there. That's how we got to the book.
You encountered some unusual stories along the way that you detail in the book. Can you dig into some of them?
It was really important to me to write it in an accessible way - to bring in stories, narrative, experiential research and firsthand journalism. One example is that I had heard that you could rent friends. So when I was in New York, I rented Britney. Britney was a 23-year-old Ivy League graduate. We drank matcha tea together, we wandered around McNally's, my favorite bookstore together, we went to Urban Outfitters and tried on hats and sunglasses. When I asked her who was renting her she said that it was typically 30 to 40-year-old women as well as men who were working very long hours, didn't have a support network in the city, didn’t have the time or the bandwidth to make or invest in friends and wanted someone to spend time with.
I feel like in many ways, social media companies are the tobacco companies of the 21st century and need to be regulated as such, because they are just so addictive.
That's fascinating. And how has technology impacted children?
When I started researching I was surprised that in general the young are the loneliest. 18 to 24-year-olds are the loneliest generation. That was surprising because we often think the elderly are the loneliest. However, the levels of loneliness amongst children have been rising really significantly. We saw this spike in levels of loneliness amongst children start to escalate from about 2010, which is when smartphone usage amongst children really started taking off.
I began my research, agnostic about the role that social media played in today's loneliness crisis. But after spending a few years digging into the academic literature and interviewing many children between 12 to 18 I came away feeling very strongly that social media has a lot to answer for. I feel like in many ways, social media companies are the tobacco companies of the 21st century and need to be regulated as such, because they are just so addictive.
The other thing that was really disturbing was kindergarten school teachers reporting an increasing number of children coming to school lacking really basic social skills. It’s the result of parents spending so much time on their phones and on their screens, they're not imparting social interaction and emotional intelligence to their kids.
My concern is that we trade convenience for community and we risk undermining the skills that are essential for inclusive democracy itself.
How has sheltering in place impacted society?
Even before the pandemic, it already was a clear trend for people to get their groceries online, and order food on Grubhub or DoorDash. It is convenient, but we are trading off deep ties that help us feel connected. There are micro exchanges that play a huge part in making us feel less alone and more connected. Researchers have even found that a 30-second exchange with a barista in a cafe can make a huge difference to how connected we feel.
When we’re wheeling our trolley through a grocery store, navigating past people careful not to bump into someone, and letting the elderly person get their stuff off the shelves first, we are practicing the muscles that underpin inclusive democracy, reciprocity, civility, thinking about others, and not only ourselves. My concern is that we trade convenience for community and we risk undermining the skills that are essential for inclusive democracy itself.
How do we ensure that we still sort of retain relationships at work and how do we start to ease back into the workplace?
Before the pandemic, 40% of office workers felt lonely. So we shouldn't romanticize it, and we can definitely do better moving forward. The temptation for businesses moving forward is to make a huge cost-saving on physical footprints by not having an office or having very reduced offices. I would really caution against that. All my research shows the importance of face-to-face, in-person connections. Eating together has a huge impact, not only on how bonded people feel to each other, but how productive they are.