The Solitary Self
Harvard sociology professor Robert Putnam has done more than anyone in our time to document the loss, in contemporary America, of social capital, the bonds that join us to one another in relationships of mutual responsibility and trust. In a famous 2000 book he gave the phenomenon a name. Noting that more people than ever were going ten-pin bowling, but fewer than ever were joining teams, he called it Bowling Alone. This became a metaphor for the decline in membership of clubs, movements and voluntary associations, the attenuation of community life and the decline of marriage as an institution. In many areas of life, what people used to do together, they now do alone.
As part of my radio series on morality for the BBC, I sought his opinions on current trends. In his office in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard he spoke with passion about how society had moved since the 1960s from the ‘We’ society of ‘We’re all in this together’ to the ‘I’ society of ‘I’m free to be myself.’ The loss of community has many consequences, one of which is social isolation. As we will see, this has proved deeply damaging for our physical and psychological health.
One of the hypotheses he has tested is that the use of language, measured over time, shows that we have moved in the past half-century from a ‘We’ culture to an ‘I’ culture.1 As his full findings have not yet been published, I asked Dan Sacker, who helped me with research for this book, to use a Google Ngram search to chart the frequencies of the words ‘We’ and ‘I’ in all English and American books, year by year, from 1900 to 2008. The two graphs are quite different. The use of ‘We’ is relatively stable over time, but the use of ‘I’ falls steadily from 1900 to 1965, at which point it begins a precipitate rise. From then on, the first-person singular dominates. A similar, though more restricted, test was carried out in 2011 by Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky. He studied the lyrics of top-ten pop songs between 1980 and 2007, and discovered that the use of first-person plural pronouns – we, us, our – had declined, while first-person singular – I, me, mine – had increased. Words that expressed anger or aggression – hate, kill, damn – also increased, while words for social interactions – talking, sharing – became less common, as did those conveying positive emotions.2 DeWall’s view is that pop lyrics are a mirror of social and attitudinal change, and that the shift from ‘We’ to ‘I’ is reflective of the wider culture. In another context, Prospect magazine commissioned a linguistic analysis of the angry Brexit debate in the House of Commons on 25 September 2019, during which Prime Minister Boris Johnson used terms like ‘traitors’, ‘betrayal’ and ‘surrender’ of his opponents. The analysis noted that, on average, the Prime Minister used a word from Harvard University’s list of semantically hostile terms every twenty-eight words, roughly every one and a half sentences – an unusual level of aggression. More relevant here is the fact that he used the word ‘I’ 340 times – far more frequently than normal.3 Political discourse, especially when used by prime ministers and presidents, has historically tended to the inclusive, even royal, ‘We’. Increased use of the word ‘I’ suggests that politics has become more about personalities than policies, and about the leader rather than the nation he or she seeks to lead. Admittedly, there are limits to what you can infer from pronouns.4 But the linguistic shift does seem to reflect this deep move from the structures of togetherness to the solitary self, the assertive ‘I’: cultural climate change. The whole of this book will be about the consequences in different areas, but this chapter is about the disastrous impact on our sense of connectedness to others. When ‘I’ prevails over ‘We’, loneliness follows.
For any social institution to exist, we must be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the relationship or the group. That is true of marriage, parenthood, membership in a community or citizenship in a nation. In these environments we enter a world of We-consciousness, in which we ask, not what is best for me but what is best for all-of-us-together.
A football team of the most brilliant players in the world will not succeed if each acts like a diva. An orchestra of dazzling musicians, each of whom feels entitled to give their own interpretation of a symphony, will produce not music but noise. A political party in which each member of parliament publicly delivers his or her judgement as to what policy should be will be a shambles. A government in which ministers publicly contradict one another will be a disgrace.
A Jewish joke puts it nicely. One year, the Yeshiva University rowing team lost all of its races. To find out what they were doing wrong, they sent an observer to watch the Harvard University team in action. Three days later, he came back shell-shocked. ‘You won’t believe it,’ he said. ‘You know what we do. They do the exact opposite. They have eight people rowing and only one person shouting instructions!’ British and American politics these days can sometimes seem like the Yeshiva University rowing crew.
Those are non-moral examples. The moral ones touch on more fundamental relationships. A marriage in which one or both partners acts selfishly is unlikely to last. A parent indifferent to the needs of his or her child will damage the child. A community where the members are not willing to bear their share of the burden of keeping it going – a group of free-riders – will cease to exist. A nation without a sense of collective identity and responsibility will split apart, as the United States and Britain have split apart since 2016. You cannot build a social world out of a multiplicity of I’s.
Simultaneously with the rise of ‘I’ over ‘We’ since the mid-1960s, marriages, families and communities have all atrophied. Fewer people are marrying. They are marrying later. They are having fewer children. More marriages are ending in divorce. The result is that more people are living alone. In the United States, the proportion of single-person households has more than doubled in the past fifty years.5 This is particularly so in large cities, where they represent 40 per cent of households. In Britain, in the twenty years between 1997 and 2017, there was a 16 per cent increase in the number of people living on their own.6
In the mid-1990s, the Secretary of State for the Environment invited the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, the leader of the Catholics in England, Cardinal Hume, and myself as Chief Rabbi, to come and meet him. He told us that because of the breakdown of marriage, more people were living alone. The result was pressure on the supply of housing. Four hundred thousand new units needed to be built, he said, in south-east England alone. Could we not do something about it? Could we not make marriage attractive again? I thought this showed spectacular faith in the power of prayer, but even were a miracle to happen, it would take more than a generation to reverse the decline.
To be sure, there is a difference between living alone and feeling lonely. Not everyone who chooses the first feels the second. But there is a connection. Genetically we are social animals. Our ancestors, in the hunter-gatherer stage of humanity, could not survive alone, and they have left a trace of this deeply engrained in our emotional set-up. Separated from others, we experience stress. Many prisoners have testified that solitary confinement is as terrifying as physical torture. John McCain said of the five and a half years he was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam that being kept solitary ‘crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment’.7 Obviously, social isolation is mild in comparison, but the body nonetheless responds by heightened awareness of potential threats in the environment, and the resultant stress eventually weakens the immune system.8 That is one reason why most people seek company, the presence of others, the touch of another soul. The less there is of ‘We’, the more there is of loneliness.
A cartoon in the 4 November 2019 issue of New Yorker magazine showed Humphrey Bogart, wearing a white tuxedo and black bow-tie, sitting alone at a bar, a glass of bourbon in his hand. In front of him is an electronic device. He is turning to it and saying, ‘Alexa, play “As Time Goes By”.’9 A poignant image for an age in which communication technology is smarter and faster than ever before, but in which human interaction, direct, face to face, other-focused, I–Thou, is all too rare. We are becoming a lonely crowd. So serious has the problem become that in January 2018, Tracey Crouch was given the task of becoming what the press dubbed Britain’s first ever ‘Minister for Loneliness’. The appointment struck a chord. Loneliness is hardly new – it makes its first appearance in the second chapter of the Bible, when Adam finds himself without a partner and God says, ‘It is not good for a person to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). But not until relatively recently has it been seen as a major health hazard. One of the factors prompting the appointment of a minister was a 2017 research report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness that showed that more than nine million people in Britain feel lonely. Two hundred thousand older Britons had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.10 A similar state of affairs exists in the United States. A 2018 Cigna survey showed that 46 per cent of Americans always or sometimes feel alone, and 47 per cent feel left out. One in four rarely or never feel that there are people who really understand them. Forty-three per cent feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others. Fifty-four per cent feel that no one knows them well. The most distressed by loneliness were young people aged between eighteen and twenty-two.11 The phenomenon is not confined to the West. In Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia, 34 per cent of the population declared themselves lonely.12 In Japan, meanwhile, there is an entire sub-population known as the hikikomori, numbering more than a million, of people who shut themselves up in their homes, seldom if ever venturing out and living in hermit-like seclusion. As noted above, more people than ever in the West are living alone. Only half of American adults are married, down from 72 per cent in 1960.13 More than half of those between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four do not have a steady partner.14 More people are cohabiting rather than getting married, and the average length of a cohabitation is less than a third as long as the average marriage.15 Fewer children are living as adults in close proximity to their parents. Corporations often call on individual workers to move to a different region or country, which further disrupts relationships. Isolation particularly affects the elderly. One-third of Britons and Americans over the age of sixty-five live alone, and more than half of those over eighty-five.
Then there is the phenomenon charted by Robert Putnam, the marked decline in membership of the kind of associations that used to bring people together on a regular basis – sports teams, local charities, religious congregations, and so on. Increasingly, people are using electronic means of communication rather than face-to-face contact, which itself is potentially dangerous, since the health benefits of relationships are quite often associated with actual physical presence.
Loneliness has serious health implications.16 It has long been associated with psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. Recently, strong connections have also been established with physical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.17
There is a difference between loneliness and social isolation. The first is a subjective, self-reported state, while social isolation is an objective condition, usually defined as a lack of contact with family, friends, community and society. Social isolation is itself as harmful to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a ...