“A good friend is like a four-leaf clover. Hard to find, and lucky to have.”
Back in 2000, Harvard political scientist and public policy maven Robert Putnam authored an intriguingly-titled book, Bowling Alone, documenting the decline of social capital across America (and the world). Putnam cited five key items that are perhaps even more important in our 2021 post-COVID world than they were in his Y2K Millennium world:
the dramatic drop in face-to-face interactions among friends
the reduction in two types of peership: bonding (within a demographic) and bridging (between groups)
the influence of technology and media in mediating how we value time, increasingly alone (and sometimes bowling alone)
the impact of where we live (e.g. suburbanization), how we live (e.g. work-to-live philosophy) and what we value (e.g. public policy and generational value shifts) impacting our social lives detrimentally
the societal, civic, health and happiness rifts that inevitably occur when you lose the connective tissue and life rafts of real meaningful social connection.
Make no mistake. It’s 2021 now. It stinks we can’t see current friends or make new friends. And we are teetering at a “red alert” level of social adversity and “real” friend paucity.
Want evidence? As I write to you in the middle of this isolating pandemic, three quarters of us admit that it is extremely difficult to find ways to connect with friends during COVID (Source: AARP). As a consequence, 81% have felt lonely and isolated at some point during this pandemic (Source: Gallup). Only 12% of us believe we’re really actually that good at keeping in touch with friends to begin with (Source: Civic Science). Four times as many of us believe extending some of this social pandemic isolation past the December’20 holidays is a net detriment to our mental health versus people who believe they are immune. As I write this post to you today, we have seen hundreds of mob protesters unprecedentedly storm the Washington Capitol. This is not normal. And many have attributed these behaviours to the challenge of lowered social capital, as well as the need for people, however disturbed, to find any kind of community and peership of others who might think like them. A disturbing omen, but very human.
So twenty years later, Bowling Alone has a new stanza and verse. Replace a conscious choice of not meeting with others, to a publicly enforced safety policy of not being able to meet with others.
Replace disconnecting with society by preference, to an activist, online cancel culture that wants to take down society at a hat drop (but live their real lives anonymously). Replace the rising 2000s’ “epidemic” of TV and video games with the 2020s’ “new media cataclysm” of social and dark media echo chambers, and escapist virtual, augmented and mixed reality worlds and the inspiration for this article. Streaming alone; I am not above it—trust me my binge of Queen’s Gambit was amazing.
Some might charitably call it “cocooning” or reappraising life pensively, but we are doing much of this life alteration alone. It’s not a new phenomenon but it’s causing even more problems now.
Today with the pandemic in full flight, let’s add in: a home-schooled, screen-addicted and convention-free children cohort; an unhooked, moved-back home, very underemployed and destitute young adult population; a permanently stressed and burnt out adult/parent group worried about financial solvency, job security and family care; and an older group of citizens feeling assaulted by a health virus that travels through air and knows no geographic, economic or lifestyle boundaries.
Multiply on top of that a work-from-anywhere new order that, despite benefits, has led to a social split away from the daily conviviality and calming regulation of co-workers, a disintegrating line between home and work, and an extension of the work day clock despite an eliminated commute. Drop in: an ample load of wealth disparity creating two types of pandemic experience—mortally assaulted vs. merely inconvenienced (and “wow my 401Ks are doing quite well thank you”), polarized political behavior, and rising confrontations between belief in science and lockdown vs. live-free advocacy; and an ever-rising tide of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation propagated by those who stand to gain. This is a social powder keg.
There is a societal and personal price to all of this. The COVID-19 loneliness phenomena is akin health-wise to smoking 15 cigarettes per day (Source: HRSA). The absence of social relationships is associated with a 29% increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% rise in the risk of stroke (Source: CareMore Health). Lonely people are shown to be less motivated, loosely committed, societally disengaged and poorly productive. What’s that you say? Less time spent with friends means more time with family. That should be a good thing, right? Only partially. Given rising divorce rates and domestic abuse issues during this pandemic, we know that isn’t retreating into family 24/7 is not the full social panacea. Even if it were, 29% of us now live alone (70% more than in the previous generation). So forget the value of shared laughter, tears, wild stories, idle banter, small triumphs and painful near misses—as a society, we need friends!
At the risk of being too dystopian, I do believe there is hope. The Australian Institute for Families looked at a range of things that we miss most from before this pandemic. You know what we miss most (more than travel, sporting events, concerts, restaurants, cinemas and gyms)? We miss friends. Studies have shown acute isolation increases our craving for social contact. If we are lucky, we see our friends on Zoom/video streams or Instagram and feel the longing.
Social media does not satiate the hunger (in fact, studies have shown frequent social media use may increase the FOMO-based sense of loneliness). Our current “corona” mental state is like feeling hungry and being told that an apple is not safe to eat. Our brains have been hard-wired to expect proximity to others for many thousands of years.
In a modern context, connection to friends is one of the single most predictive factors to physical health and emotional well-being. We need it. We want it. Let’s have it. Safely. And for the right authentic and reciprocal reasons. We all stand to gain.