Social Depth and Breadth - tuesday 2013-06-25 1043 last modified 2013-06-25 1043
Categories: People
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"We must love one another or die." - W. H. Auden

Several years ago, a then-co-worker made an intriguing comment about a study on American's incredibly shrinking circle of close friends and how, within a few generations, the average had fallen from several people one could tell everything to and rely upon to close to one, a catastrophic drop so worrisome it made the scientists responsible question whether their study was flawed. I never did get around to asking about which study this was, but a few mainstream articles over the years have since pointed the way.

A similar study - maybe the same - encompassing twenty years seems to indicate that close circles dropped to two friends from three, and now mostly amongst immediate family, a reflection perhaps of the odd paradigm of the American nuclear family (and perhaps suburbia) and quite worrisome in regards to cultural and not merely individual isolation. If we are only friends with our family, we miss opportunities to be shaped by literally foreign points of view.

We hear similar messages all the time about how poorly we do at actually putting things that matter first in our modern lives; the top regret of the elderly is not spending more time with their loved ones. If relationships are a reliable source for making us happy, why is it that our trend appears to say we're getting worse and worse at making real, deep friendships a high value in our society? Is it a message we need to adapt and learn anew how to pass on as our social structures and institutions change so rapidly? And how did we end up seeming to lose sight of something so core to humanity so quickly anyhow?

The research pops up in the news from time to time and successive research in the same vein continues, but the most it seems to engender is a bit of hand-wringing. Yet this piece of social science has stuck with me because it seems quite a bit more important than the funding and attention it receives might indicate. We are resilient, to be sure, and it is in our nature to relate; we won't forget what we are, but there is a world of difference between thriving and just surviving. The lead quote was grabbed from another line of research on loneliness and isolation and how bad it can be for your health as a way of life. We weren't made to be alone.

I've been sitting with this thought for several years without writing about it because there doesn't seem to be an adequate conclusion to give it. It's hardly saying anything to advocate being better to one another or putting a greater value on cultivating deeper friendships; nobody is really going to change their approach hearing it from a sociologist, let alone me. Even so, it feels deeply inadequate to give individual advice. The problem, if there is one, or just one, seems to be systemic. How does that happen? Is it an unintended consequence of modern life? Is it something that can be addressed, or is it just another hopeless line of research, revealing the road we're on with no way to change course? If we haven't been here before, what happens next?

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