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The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century

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Olds, Jacqueline

240 pages, Hardcover

First published February 1, 2009

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Jacqueline Olds

5 books2 followers

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5 stars
42 (26%)
4 stars
67 (42%)
3 stars
37 (23%)
2 stars
11 (6%)
1 star
1 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 39 reviews
Profile Image for M0rningstar.
133 reviews5 followers
February 24, 2012
An even-toned book on a timely and important topic, The Lonely American advances a thoughtful thesis: our efforts at stepping back from the light-speed hubbub of our daily lives to reconnect with "what's important" might inadvertently exacerbate our disconnect.

The authors provide some good insight on the psychological, evolutionary and (very simplified) neurobiological dimensions of bond formation. They also provide a good explanation of social exclusion and its effects (such as increased aggression towards, surprisingly, both the in-group and out-group.) The sections on overparenting as a result of familial seclusion, the "parentification" of children in socially isolated small households, the pathologising of loneliness, and the dangers of substituting the psychiatric/rehabilitation network for social connections are all interesting and well put together.

Now that we've covered the good, let's talk about the bad and the curious.

The bad consists of mainly some very glaring omissions and old-fashioned assumptions. Amidst the many, many pages devoted to marriage, same-sex marriages are accorded a single sentence. People (and their households) are either single or married. There is virtually no mention of unmarried lived-in partners, romantically committed people who are still living separately (perhaps pending marriage, perhaps not), or households whose members are related but not by marriage. The authors also so generally equate living alone with social isolation, seemingly forgetting that group arrangements can be just as lonely and isolating (e.g. boarding houses, institutions.)

In some instances, the arguments are slightly self-contradictory. The book takes great pains to point out that the increasing rate of marital failures is one of the causes of worsening loneliness, the implication being that being in a healthy, lasting marriage is a good thing. It also states that modern marriages (those that don't end in divorce) generally tend to be of better quality than those of decades past, because spouses share and communicate more. Strangely, the authors then lament how nowadays couples often neglect their wider social connections due to modern romantic ideals in which spouses are supposed to be entirely devoted to each other. In contrast, a married couple in the 1950s would still be expected to dine with the neighbors every week and the husband's boss once a month, and to spend the whole Sunday at church, etc. This begs the question: if marriage is so crucial to staving off loneliness, then isn't increased time and effort poured into marriage to increase its quality a better bet than cultivating various external, but shallow, relationships? It can be debated either way.

Curiously, Alcoholics Anonymous gets several accolades for the instant
support network it provides to its participants. The authors go so far as to call it "probably the most reliable antidote to loneliness ever invented in [the USA]." Yet the fact that 12-step programs, including AA, are no more effective at reducing alcohol abuse (ostensibly their chief mission) than the mere passage of time (i.e. spontaneous remission) is not mentioned. Granted, this is a sociology text about loneliness, not substance abuse (although the two are often closely tied, as noted elsewhere in the book), but a knitting group could provide a socializing network equally readily, so why the repeated emphasis on AA?

The authors also decry our culture's increasing focus on health and exercise to the detriment of nurturing our social bonds. While there are certainly edge cases where fitness becomes a problematic obsession, to pit "regular workouts and healthy eating" against "relationships" is patently bizarre.

In the final chapter, the authors offer "some ideas about what should be done." Here, one of the highlighted solutions is religion, which "speaks directly to the discontents that arise from a socially disconnected life, and [...] offers a cure." While the authors allow that religion can be a divisive force as well, this is done almost as an afterthought, an abstraction. Discussion of religion as a potent source of isolation, a cause for social exclusion, is oddly absent. The ostracism (or worse) of people from minority faiths, the LGBTQ community, or of no religious affiliation by major religions goes completely unaddressed.
Profile Image for Mehrzad.
184 reviews25 followers
March 22, 2021
Chapter 7 of the book covers loneliness in relationships / marriage. Hands down, the best chapter of the book, and without a doubt, best chapter I've ever listened to about loneliness in any book! And to be honest, the only reason I gave this one 4-stars.
Profile Image for Sarah Dale.
Author 2 books11 followers
May 4, 2013
Very readable and a well-informed and interesting reflection on what is happening to many people in Western societies, not just America. Loneliness is often a taboo subject but can have a profound effect on how vulnerable we are to mental (and physical) ill-health. A very important topic I think.
Profile Image for Oswald.
106 reviews3 followers
January 1, 2014
Quotes I found interesting:

"gossip plays the same role for humans that grooming behavior does for other primates. It creates bonds between individuals tht go beyond the basic reproductive units of sexual partners and their offspring. It creates groups." P. 65

As group size increases, so does the size of the neocortex." P. 65

48 percent of all households on the island [of Manhattan] are one-person households. P. 79

Does time on the Internet replace other forms of social connection, or does it supplement it.. P. 98

"Music is unusual among all human activities for both its ubiquity and its antiquity. No known human culture now or anytime in the recorded past lacked music." - P. 105

"No music lover would ever take seriously the claim that a music video is the equivalent of a live performance." - P. 106

"Social isolation is a common denominator among most families in which child abuse occurs." P. 124

A person who has not seen a relationship weather the difficult times is a little more likely to panic and take flight in moments of anger, disillusionment, or estrangement. P. 131

An abundance of choices decreases rather than increases happiness. P. 138

When people have lots of choices, they worry more about making the wrong choices. That worry trumps the joyful sense of freedom. P. 138

We all need the perspective of others to know who we are. P. 164

Profile Image for Sue.
Author 16 books29 followers
June 4, 2018
If you feel like the only person in the United States with no one to talk to, join the club. In this psychological-sociological look at the growing tendency to sever connections with other people, we learn that one-quarter of the households in this country are occupied by only one person and one-quarter of the population say they have not talked to anyone about anything important to them for six months or longer. Olds and Schwartz, married Boston psychiatrists, discuss the ways people step back from society, the myth of the heroic outsider, the effects of technology and social media, the ways people try to fill the gap through substance abuse, and the blurring of the lines between loneliness and mental illness. It’s a heavy read, but the book is full of important points. For example, people need other people to keep themselves from blowing problems out of proportion. The authors note that therapists may provide a much-needed person to talk to, but it will always be a one-sided relationship. One of my favorite quotes cites Virginia Woolf’s famous cry for “a room of one’s one,” then adds, “She also walked into a river with stones in her pockets.” I know the feeling. This book is an important contribution to the study of social disconnection in the U.S. and beyond.
Profile Image for Tabitha Gallman.
14 reviews
November 24, 2018
I can't recommend this book enough. It is written by two clinical professors of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. From an appropriate perspective, the doctors have shared their research on the subject of loneliness within our culture. The doctors discovered through data collected from stories of patients that a pattern was emerging concerning loneliness and the ill effect it has holistically and culturally. The book discusses so many aspects of loneliness including the stigma around it, the ripple effects isolation can cause and much more. Not only is this a very informative and interesting read for any level reader, but I think it should be a necessary tool for anyone going into any humanities studies.
Profile Image for Viewpoints Radio.
75 reviews2 followers
June 27, 2017
Everyone needs some alone time in their lives. Although often times alone time may be nice, research finds that too much alone time can affect our mental health. Loneliness and social isolation can have significant effects on our physical health and also increase the risk of death. Jacqueline Olds and Dr. Richard Schwartz dive in to the lasting effects of loneliness in this book. We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Richard Schwartz, co-author of this book, to discuss loneliness and how we can improve our mental health through relationships. To listen to the full podcast, check out this link! https://radiohealthjournal.wordpress....
Profile Image for James Ruley.
302 reviews2 followers
April 30, 2018
Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” sparked a multitude of books discussing the dissolution of communal bonds in America. “The Lonely American” is one of those books. This work discusses how Americans have become lonely through a combination of busyness, individualism, and self reliance. While this book does not condemn “being alone” it critiques the idol that our culture has made of isolation, and suggests that many of our problems would be alleviated through forging stronger bonds with other. This book is highly readable and eminently timely. A call to read and to change.
Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,104 reviews163 followers
January 19, 2018
Being too busy is bad, but even worse is checking out of social life. When this happens people get depressed, then use alcohol, drugs, or pharmaceuticals to deal with their depression. Therapy is better but still unideal. The authors admit this is a societal problem - both being too busy and being isolated- but then sort of vaguely suggest we just force ourselves to socialize.
Profile Image for Andrea.
450 reviews21 followers
December 7, 2019
Clearly explained reasons why being alone as often as we choose to be in american may not be serving us and ways that we can change. I really appreciated the authors making space in the book to cover the myriad areas the "alone" trend impacts from our emotional and physical health to the impact on the planet as we become more and more of a consumer based culture.
Profile Image for Crista Colvin.
52 reviews
June 4, 2017
Would like to hear the authors' thoughts on the effect of marital "cocooning" on unmarried friends.
Profile Image for Ibrahim.
52 reviews
September 5, 2022
Between 1985 and 2004, the number of Americans who said they had no one to discuss important matters with tripled, reaching nearly the quarter of the population. A quarter of the population!
Profile Image for Anna.
1,007 reviews11 followers
January 7, 2010
This book begins with the premise from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (a changing-my-world-view book) that people are not as connected as they used to be and that the outcomes of this are negative for society and the individual. The thesis of The Lonely American is that people drift away from social connections because of push and pull factors. The push is the frenetic and overscheduled intensity of modern life and the pull is the American ideal of the self-reliant hero that stands apart from the crowd (think Walden Pond, cowboy movies, even Washington outsider). There's a lot to think about reading this book (although it's not perfect). I was particularly persuaded by the observation that it has become somewhat socially acceptable to be depressed or even mentally ill but admitting that one is lonely is not. I was somewhat amused by the following observation about how insular we all are and how much we value our alone-time: "Virginia Woolf eloquently proclaimed the importance of "a room of one's own." She also walked into a river with stones in her pocket." Everyone should read Putnam.
Profile Image for Katie.
32 reviews3 followers
September 5, 2010
This book is pretty depressing (but really well written and interesting!), but I read all the way through it anyway, because it confirmed a sense I have been having about modern society, and American society in particular, which is that we're just not as connected as we used to be. This book cites all sorts of studies, all sorts of personal observations, and of course all the technological innovations like the Internet, Facebook, etc., that have become so indispensible but more and more just keep us chained to our computers and out of touch with flesh-and-blood people.
The conclusion is simple: connect more, "stay limber" socially, as they put it - as with exercise, it's better to do some regularly, but if you get out of the habit, you'll just have to get through that period of stiffness while you're getting limbered up again.
But really, this was just too depressing, I think I'm going to read The Happiness Project next...
235 reviews6 followers
September 12, 2012
Excellently presented, interesting examples given, and generally well-written, 'The Lonely American' explores the causes and effects of stepping back from our busy lives. I particularly enjoyed chapters 1, 2, 6, & 10.

Some quotes I found interesting:
"Cocooning is the couples' version of social isolation. It does increase closeness in marriages. It also increases the fragility of marriage, the burdens placed upon marriage, and, over time, it increases the likelihood of both divorce and loneliness" (p116).
"Social isolation is a common denominator among most families in which child abuse occurs" (p124).
Profile Image for With Butterflies.
108 reviews
March 4, 2009
An interesting read. The book attempts to shed light on the social disconnection of the modern American.

At times it seems as if the authors will use anything (Netflix questionnaires?) to prove their point of view, yet most of their cites are concrete.

What bothered me most of all was the insistence that one cannot live a fulfilled life without the varied connections the authors seem to believe we need. I'm not saying we should all be our own islands of existence, but I don't think it is a dangerous trend the way the book paints it to be.

Profile Image for Heather.
81 reviews
March 7, 2009
Super readable. Easy to quote from. Enjoyable to read cover-to-cover (which I so rarely get to do when sermon writing). Relevant, very current (2009), Beacon Press. In several places, quietly affirms the value and importance of welcoming, open-minded, enduring religious communities. Gave me some great analysis to mull over about Facebook, online dating, all the current forms of connecting online, what they add to our lives and what they're missing.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,824 reviews283 followers
July 24, 2009
I see loneliness as endemic to contemporary America. Everywhere I go, I meet the lonely.

Olds explores this issue. How did this come to occur? Why? Where? What can be done about it?

Like most books about social problems, the thinnest section of the book is home remedies. And that is the section we need most.
2,327 reviews90 followers
September 3, 2015
This book is about being lonely in life in the 21st century. We devote more time to technology to stay connected than any society in history, yet studies show that we feel alone anyway. People are way too busy now and have forgotten how to belong. They do not know their neighbors and do not make any real life in person friends. I find that so sad. I am glad for the people I have in my life.
Profile Image for Connie D.
1,480 reviews45 followers
February 12, 2016
This is a wise and thoughtful book about subtle changes in our lives and our communities that I had felt but not been able to identify. (Awareness of how we have stepped back from people is a key step.) The authors discuss how our culture's appreciation of solitude and independence has created various complicated problems, including but not limited to loneliness. Also very well written!
Profile Image for Jason Weill.
Author 1 book1 follower
July 11, 2016
A good follow-up for anyone who enjoyed "Bowling Alone." Written in 2008, this book looks at the sociological, psychological, and physiological effects of loneliness. As the share of single-person households in the U.S. climbs, these issues have greater importance than ever. Great quick read with a mix of engaging anecdotes and acadmic data.
Profile Image for Anna.
291 reviews3 followers
October 6, 2012

I really liked this indepth look at how many factors in modern America have contributed to a rise in loneliness. It definitely made me think about why I sleep with a cell phone on my nightstand and encouraged me to pick up the phone instead of sending an email.
Profile Image for Justine.
6 reviews3 followers
February 27, 2013
Such an amazing read!!! This book gives you so much to think about our society and culture, as well as our own day-to-day actions. I would recommend this to everybody who has a very busy lifestyle, as well as to everybody who has withdrawn from that life and is now feeling left out. So good!
Profile Image for Stan Leland.
11 reviews
October 23, 2009
Outstanding study of relationship disintegration in America. Very readable and thought provoking
18 reviews8 followers
January 9, 2012
Interesting ideas. I can see where "he was so quiet and never bothered his neighbors" might be a warning signal given the thesis of this book.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 39 reviews

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