In 1960, Elvis Presley recorded a song that had been written in 1926, and it became an immediate hit: "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" set records for the speediest rise on the Billboard Top 40 chart and remained at Number One for six weeks. The song is thoroughly cheesy and way over-the-top melodramatic, but it rung a bell with lonely people.
Perhaps a current artist should try covering the song again -- apparently Americans are lonelier than ever. In the May issue of The Atlantic, writer Stephen Marche suggests that loneliness is both epidemic and worrying. Marche asks: "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Facebook doesn't become the focus, though, until the last half of the article, and the answer is a fairly obvious "No."
Marche concludes that Facebook, like other sites designed to encourage social networking, is a tool that may either build social capital or reinforce loneliness, depending on how we use it. Lonely people can use Facebook to hang around the fringe and get depressed over the happy things that other people post, while more connected people send personal messages, comment on other's posts, and find in the medium a sense of community.
The most intriguing part of the article comes earlier. Before he gets to Facebook, Marche cites some rather striking statistics. In 1950, for example, less than 10 percent of Americans resided in a one-person household, but now 27 percent live alone. An AARP survey from 2010 found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, compared to 20 percent just 10 years earlier.
How many confidants do you have -- people in whom you can confide real feelings and trust to care about your concerns? Marche cites a survey suggesting that the average number of confidants has fallen from nearly three (2.89) in 1985 to two (2.08) in 2004 -- but that's an average. Some people have many, and some have none. The same study showed that in 1985 the proportion of people who said they had no one to talk to about important things stood at 10 percent: in 2004 it was up to 25 percent -- and another 20 percent said they had only one person they could consider a confidant.
The loss of close relationships has contributed to an explosion in the number of clinical psychologists, therapists, social workers, and mental health counselors. "This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what used to be called regular problems," Marche wrote. "We have outsourced the work of everyday caring."
And loneliness is not without consequences to our physical health as well as our mental health. Lonely people tend to exercise less, eat more, sleep less, forget more, survive serious operations less often, but have hormonal imbalances more often. Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness (2008), found higher quantities of the stress hormone epinephrine in the morning urine of lonely people, and discovered that loneliness reaches deep enough to affect the way white blood cells express genes to regulate body functions.
"When you are lonely," Marche observes, "your whole body is lonely."
Marche points to the deep irony that "despite its deleterious effect on health, loneliness is one of the first things ordinary Americans spend their money achieving." The more we earn, the more we're likely to seek more room, greater distance from others. We value individualism and self-reliance to the point of forsaking needed community.
"We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely," Marche writes. Cacioppo, in noting our tendency to try replacing human relationships with possessions or pets or online networking, observes: "Surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing."
And that's the bottom line, isn't it? We need the real thing -- real people who can look us in the eye and hear our hearts and put their arms around us and be present in a way no "virtual reality" can touch.
That doesn't happen, though, unless we're willing to get out there and make friends -- and to be friends to others. In doing so, we discover the corollary that reducing our own isolation makes someone else less lonely, too.
Nice how it works that way.