In May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm about what he called “the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.” Under Murthy’s direction, the Department of Health and Human Services released a surprisingly frank exposition of America’s social problems, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” Marriage rates, fertility, and household sizes have all declined dramatically since the mid-twentieth century, the report finds. Social networks are getting smaller. Time spent alone is rising. Three in ten households consist of one person. Only 30 percent of Americans think that they can reliably trust one another. And 16 percent of Americans feel strongly attached to their local community.
These are all alarming statistics, but they are part of a longer-running trend. A kind of loneliness grew over the course of the twentieth century in the West, worsening toward its end. Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone showed that participation in clubs or civic societies had declined over the course of the last century. The number of men with no close friends has increased fivefold since 1990. Suicides have increased in the United States since the end of the twentieth century, as have deaths of despair. In 2016, Europe was found to be the most suicidal region in the world by gross rate. Average life expectancy in America has begun to decline. According to a recent Gallup survey, only 31 percent of respondents said that they had attended a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple within the past seven days. This represents a noteworthy decline of about 10 percent from the late-twentieth century up to about 2012.
Young people, too, are increasingly unhappy. The percentage of teenaged Americans who claim not to enjoy life, or who believe that their lives are not useful, is now just under 50 percent—nearly a 20 percent rise since the early 1990s, as documented in Jean M. Twenge’s new book Generations. Hopelessness, despondency, and a sort of “flatness” have been invoked to describe the dominant feeling of our time. Politics is polarized practically everywhere. Warfare has returned to Europe, and a deteriorating Russia is once again threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Understandably, declinism is spreading. Peter Frankopan’s New Silk Roads, from 2018, tells a tale of Western collapse and the ascent of Asia. Canadian academic Andrew Potter’s 2021 book On Decline determines that 2016 was the year that decline set in for good. Titles as Disorder and The End of the World is Just the Beginning and Doom predict looming catastrophes comparable with the Bronze Age Collapse. Peter Turchin’s new book End Times forecasts a systemic breakdown in America, reminiscent of the Taiping Rebellion or French Revolution. Thinkers who blame American liberalism for present woes now openly call for “regime change.” Donald Trump speaks incessantly of American decay and Western stagnation, while Greta Thunberg prophesies imminent and irreversible calamity. No wonder a plurality of Americans surveyed in a 2017 Pew poll think that the world was better 50 years ago; a 2015 survey of the world’s nine richest countries found that only 10 percent of adults thought that the world was getting better.
To many observers in the West, this grim situation must seem like a paradox. How can there be such a malaise, such “doomerism,” amid so much progress and technological improvement? Consider Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now as a representative of the contemporary case for optimism.
No one can deny that technology has improved over the past century or so. But optimists of the Pinker school presuppose that there must be some connection between technological improvements, moral progress, and human happiness. Yet no one ever asserted that the use of wheels or the invention of the chariot should have made people happier or more virtuous during the Indo-European conquests beginning about 4,000 B.C. Nor did the use of heavier ploughs toward the end of the Middle Ages help to lighten the mood during the Black Death. The last great technological and scientific boom occurred amid the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, when Europeans supposedly emerged from the darkness of tradition into the light of empirical observation. And yet, the most savage persecutions, civil wars, and witch-burning happened at the end of the Renaissance, not during the so-called Dark Age. And astrology, demonology, and other superstitious beliefs flourished more after the Reformation than before.
Something similar has happened within living memory. Darwin’s theory of evolution, one of the most “progressive” ideas ever conceived, justified scientific racism and served as an excuse for purging the weak and infirm. It wasn’t just Nazis and Bolsheviks who thought that way. Liberal democracies also had their eugenicist phase in the early twentieth century; some progressive institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation helped fund Nazi eugenics programs, including one involving the infamous Josef Mengele. When the destructive power of industrial warfare came home in the First and Second World War, it became possible to see a dark side of progress. Science, though it has granted the power to prolong life and eliminate suffering, has also yielded chemicals and bombs powerful enough to destroy nations. Or as John F. Kennedy put it in his inaugural address: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
Those two examples give reason to believe that technological and scientific progress can facilitate evil and misery. Some intellectuals in our own time have once again begun to contemplate this. Lurking behind the problem of contemporary unhappiness is undoubtedly a monster—the Internet, along with its horrible offspring, social media. Their appearance and expansion coincide with the growth of the present malaise, and probably did much to cause it. The Internet was supposed to usher in an “information age,” of course. But the optimism associated with that term in the 1990s is clearly gone in an era of “fake news,” “disinformation,” easy-access pornography, incessant pop-up ads, spam, clickbait, isolation, and anxiety.
This brings us back to Murthy’s report. Though it is encouraging to read an accurate assessment of the problem of loneliness, some of the observations are odd. “The world is just beginning to recognize the vital importance of social connection” fits that description, since the formation of communities is as old as the human species. As for the recommendations, most are vague suggestions about making “social connection” a priority for discussion, education, research funding, and so on, at various levels of government. The report contains some exhortations to the media and tech companies to create narratives that “broaden public awareness of the health benefits of social connection” and to create technology that “fosters healthy dialogue and relationships.” It encourages parents to “model healthy social connection” and to monitor “how young people spend their time online.”
This advice is banal, but it also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what a society is. The report seems to assume that society is little more than an aggregation of solitary individuals who need social connections simply to meet private needs. Moreover, various groups, clubs, or associations, to which a person might belong, are presented as enhancements of social life and private happiness.
These ideas would have been incomprehensible in any former time. Thinkers from Xenophon to Tocqueville have inherited, reiterated, and passed on the truth that the basic element of a society is not the individual but the household or family. The earliest civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia were structured as networks of households scaled upward from families to institutional households and beyond to the entire polity. This ideal of civilized order survived into the classical and medieval world and reached a peak in the voluntary associations known in Europe as guilds and in the Islamic East as futuwwa. Such institutions were modelled on the ideal of sibling relationships and expressed common interests and values. Their modern descendants are the volunteer and civic associations, church youth groups, and benevolent societies that distinguished American life in the mid-twentieth century. Think of President George H. W. Bush’s inaugural address and its invocation of the “thousand points of light . . . the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good.”
The interlocking structure of such organizations does not so much enhance social life as constitute it. These groups are society; without them, there can be no social life. Neither the Internet nor any other piece of technology or scientific knowledge can bring us together. And mass communication through social media or teleconferencing can actually leave people feeling more isolated than before.
To use a contemporary expression, we might say that the individual cannot be scaled up. Only interconnected groups—operating more or less face-to-face—work at scale. When voluntary associations deteriorate or disappear, we get the present malaise. Any strategy to tackle loneliness must encourage household formation and the establishment of voluntary associations—and not as merely two of many equally valid lifestyle choices. They must be regarded as the foundation of a flourishing society.
Two hundred years ago, Tocqueville detected the demon of “hyper-individualism” lurking within American egalitarianism. Its influence has waxed and waned over time, but no one has yet driven it out. In an aristocratic society, families would remain in the same position and very often in the same place. An individual man would always have reason to be mindful of his ancestors and descendants; and he would readily sacrifice personal pleasure for the sake of others, whether his present neighbors or those who had gone before or who were yet to be born. But the freedom promised by democracy was bound to degrade social ties and leave people personally, politically, and socially isolated. In an egalitarian society, it would be possible to gain enough wealth to look after one’s own needs, so as to owe nothing to anybody and to require nothing from others. People in such circumstances would come to feel themselves isolated and yet also capable of moulding their destinies as they wished. Each man would find himself, as Tocqueville predicted, “shut up entirely within the solitude of his own heart,” indifferent to the fate of others.
Tocqueville’s prediction has come true—and things are worse than he expected. Extreme individualism and self-preoccupation are unlikely to be dislodged in the era of “personal truth,” “inner selves,” self-identification, and identitarianism. Murthy’s report gives an honest assessment of the trouble before us, but the only way to make a change is to address the root of the problem of loneliness.