The geographies of loneliness (The Guardian - Cities)
April 7, 2016 7:04 AM   Subscribe

"What's the world's loneliest city?" "Urban life is more stressful than rural life, but whether it’s lonelier is a point of debate among social scientists. A 2016 report by Age UK noted there are higher incidences of loneliness in cities, but precisely what brings it on is surprising. The same report found that gender and education are largely irrelevant – except for those with the highest level of education, who are often lonelier – and that household income and caring for a pet also have little effect."
posted by wallawallasweet (23 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
had to read through a lot of interesting data to discovezr that there is no answer to the question posed.
posted by Postroad at 7:09 AM on April 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Interesting - if indeed inconclusive. I learned from this that there is such a thing as the Campaign to End Loneliness: ‘a network of national, regional and local organisations and people working together through community action, good practice, research and policy to ensure that loneliness is acted upon as a public health priority at national and local levels’.
posted by misteraitch at 7:13 AM on April 7, 2016

That picture of what appears to a woman surrounded by cats? That is my ideal life.
posted by Kitteh at 7:16 AM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some interesting things to think about. Thanks, OP.

posted by Capt. Renault at 7:20 AM on April 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not to get out my soapbox, but:

One thing is certain: the percentage of those who live alone has increased dramatically. In the US, 27% of people live alone, up from 5% in 1920, and in New York City it’s roughly one third. The same trend is evident in Canada, and even more pronounced in Europe...

This growing proportion gives me hope. With so much geared towards couples and families -- travel, groceries, dining, other activities and entertainment, ordinary socializing, tax structures and other governmental policies, you name it -- perhaps with the growing proportion of single person households, some of these incidental barriers might change a bit. When those single households grow in proportion and inevitably push the markets to accommodate them (and not at a toleration premium), then maybe the 'ordinariness' of it will become apparent, and loneliness decrease accordingly. If you no longer see buying a bottle of ketchup as a reminder of your freakishness, when all reasonable options are directed at someone who is Not You, maybe loneliness lessens as well.

Dunno. I hope.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:46 AM on April 7, 2016 [24 favorites]

I've lived in medium-sized cities (Fresno, Nara) and big ones (Tokyo, Southern Cali) and always had friends when I was involved in churches. Say what you will about the religious aspect, if nothing else it's a place you can go every week, more or less, and see the same collection of people. School used to do that for me. I suppose a neighborhood pub might do that for me if I lived in the UK. The pastors I remember fondly were really great at getting to know people and getting them to connect with each other; they also made a point to discourage cliques from getting unhealthy and to encourage people to engage with loners.
posted by technodelic at 7:58 AM on April 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

Or perhaps we can learn from Henry Miller’s struggle with New York; in 1944, he packed his bags and moved to sunny Big Sur, California.


I often hear about the church's vastly reduced role in American community life (compared to, I dunno, the 1950s?) and how nothing has sprung up to replace it. I volunteer for a sense of community, personally, but it's definitely something you have to seek out, as opposed to something that finds you. And it's not centralized. Communities on top of communities, all pretty much invisible as you walk around in your neighborhood.

An interesting effect of the difficulty of making friends as a newcomer to a city, which I have observed as a San Francisco native who still goes to a lot of random meetups: The only people you meet at those things are fellow newcomers, and they often move on after a few months or a year. It's not just that you're new, it's that everyone else you meet is, too. It makes it exponentially harder to put down roots and I see a lot of people struggle with it.

I do believe it's a public health issue, although it had never occurred to me to frame it as such. (Remember in the emotional labor thread when we talked about the health effects on men of a lifetime of avoiding emotional labor?)

When those single households grow in proportion and inevitably push the markets to accommodate them (and not at a toleration premium), then maybe the 'ordinariness' of it will become apparent, and loneliness decrease accordingly.

I would LOVE for this to happen... but it also makes me think of Japan, where everything from apartment size to (as you mention) food packaging is geared toward the single. Restaurants for one, etc. I'm not sure it has really cut down on feelings of alienation, unfortunately. But I'd still settle for not having to waste ketchup or struggle through living with roommates in my alienation.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:00 AM on April 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

The only people you meet at those things are fellow newcomers, and they often move on after a few months or a year.

Prividence is a lot like this -- you get people born here, who still
Socialize with the people they met in grade school, and transients, who you have to keep replacing as they move on. It kind of sucks being a non-transient "newcomer."
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:04 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Capt. Renault

I think there's an option you've left out, which is living with friends. I don't know if people don't like that option, if it's seen as a bit povvie or if people simply don't have that option, but it makes a lot of sense. You can take your social life for granted, there's that external pressure to pull you out of a Netflix coma and you don't have to cook every night all of which is good compensation for the inevitable drama. The problem is having a place that's so small you don't get any time alone at all. With the trend (at least in London) to not even have sitting rooms any more and the tiniest of kitchens, it's pretty much a recipe for disaster. Plus in reality you never do get the right people with the right chemistry, but in principle I think it's the best option for healthy, non-lonely living.
posted by Cassettevetes at 8:07 AM on April 7, 2016

I really only have experience living in one city but I sometimes wish that I could be more lonely here. Our neighbors on the block organized a welcoming wine and ice cream stoop party the weekend that we moved and we've been swamped by social obligations ever since. There always seems to be a party, BBQ, volunteer activity, bowling or boccie night, bar meetup or brunch to go to. We're both introverts and it gets exhausting.
posted by octothorpe at 8:10 AM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

(immediately clicks octothorpe's profile and moves to his block)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:15 AM on April 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

A short article can't cover everything but I found it odd that there was no reference to children. Surely one factor here is declining birthrates and people having kids later? Kids usually provide a built-in social life for parents, in that there are daycare arrangements, school activities, sports, parents you get to be friendly with because your kids are friends, etc. I suppose some of that skews more middle class but I'd say it's a factor across the economic spectrum.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:18 AM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites] principle I think it's the best option for healthy, non-lonely living.

Well, that's just it, isn't it? Is living alone an OK thing for people to do, or is it an unhealthy thing which needs to be corrected? Perhaps with the growing proportion, we all might realize it's the former. Once that understanding is out there, and there's less negative reinforcement about being single, perhaps attendant loneliness decreases as well. But that's guesswork on my part.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:20 AM on April 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

(But I do appreciate the sentiment. I just donwanna.)
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:21 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Easy. The loneliest city is any city I am in.

posted by nevercalm at 8:25 AM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Having kids in an itinerant city doesn't help with loneliness in the long term.

Sure, it was grand when my daughter had two best friends in her grade and we could be friends with the moms. That lasted two years. The other girls moved.

Another consideration is income inequality and housing expense. Only half the kids in my neighbourhood go to public school. The others, children of homeowners, go to private school. Many of the children in public school live in small accommodation, for example my daughter's new best friend is the child of a single mom with two kids in a one bedroom apartment. It's not like mom can entertain. Housing like this is inherently unstable, if mom finds the cash my daughter's new best friend might be gone next year. I don't get too close.

It's hard to socialize with the kids in private school. They have after school activities, weekend ski trips, vacations on every school holiday. The only time we see these children is on summer break. We socialize within our family instead.

Certainly having kids has increased the number of people that I am friendly with, but these people aren't my friends. I make more friends by leaving jobs and converting coworkers to friends.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:43 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Capt. Renault,

I think you're conflating two things, though the articles does this as well: living alone and being lonely.

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with living alone, I did it most of my adult life until I got married, but loneliness is a problem for many people. That is, people being isolated and unable to socialize. As some posters in this thread note, this can be very difficult in a city after you leave school, because you're surrounded by millions of people but have no real opportunity or reason to meet or befriend any of them.

I'm not sure if acceptance of single people would affect the loneliness problem. Even if it's perfectly fine to live alone, it's still just as hard to make new friends and social connections. Loneliness is a problem even for people living with others. There was a recent MeFi article, for example, about the problems men have later in life with having few or no social connections outside of their own family, so even people married with kids struggle with it.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:07 AM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

To be part of any community you have to show up for things on a regular basis, whatever those things are, so that people know you are really part of their group and not just a visitor or temp. That's when you make connections, in boring committee meetings or frantic event planning or having a favorite seat that you're always in every week, or being the one who volunteers to bring the coffee.

It's work, for sure. Not everyone wants to do it, or needs to. I was a disconnected, spiky, footloose type most of my life, but at some point in my 30s it got old and felt lonely. Eventually I purposefully sought out a way to settle down and connect. Much as I love the inside of my own head, it was getting a little cramped and dull. I needed other people around even if I often failed to understand them or they confused me.

It was uncomfortable and there were many false starts but my family did eventually settle in a place that felt good to us and that we can build on. We're still weird little family but again, if you just keep showing up, people start to take you for granted as part of things, and you find ways to connect with each other.
posted by emjaybee at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

The problem is a lot of the old community structures are gone for most people (church, living near family and the people you grew up with, long term jobs, civic membership) and there's no easy replacement. I've found that if you want to find a sense of belonging somewhere, you pretty much have to make it your part time job to get out and participate in things . That's why you get so many askmes from perfectly nice people wondering what's wrong with them that they don't have any friends. It's not them, it's our crappy new social structure (or lack thereof).
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 11:20 AM on April 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Well, that's just it, isn't it? Is living alone an OK thing for people to do, or is it an unhealthy thing which needs to be corrected?

Both or neither, depending on the specific person - and often the time in that person's life. I lived alone for almost a decade and was, for the most part, happy. Then, gradually, I wasn't - and now I live in a 2 bedroom apartment w/my partner and two kids and, am for the most part, happy. Except I find myself occasionally missing the ease and control of living alone. So it goes.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:25 PM on April 7, 2016

I specifically moved away from my hometown/state after high school because I knew staying there would mean seeing the same people, going to the same places and hanging out with the same friends for the rest of my life. College would have been high school 2.0 since almost everyone I knew went to the same state school. And even though I loved those friends, I couldn't do that forever. I needed something new.

So I moved to a big urban city and guess what? I'm lonely. And looking back I had an easy way to prevent that by staying (had I known what was coming), but that would have also meant sacrificing one of the few chances I'd have to get out. I've met a couple friends here who I see occasionally, but nothing like I had back home.
posted by downtohisturtles at 12:50 PM on April 7, 2016

if you want to find a sense of belonging somewhere, you pretty much have to make it your part time job to get out and participate in things [...] it's our crappy new social structure (or lack thereof).

It was *always* a part-time job; church volunteering, Masonic or other fraternity functions, Jane Jacobian eye-on-the-streeting, casserole and laundry rota for someone laid up, or full on Elinor Ostrom acequia maintenance. That part isn't new. Much of the problem is long job+commute time now, some of it is people expecting this incredibly complex thing to happen without [their] work, and I have a personal hypothesis that cheap travel vacations have damaged most of the places we actually live because it's harder to stay at home and make a decent X than to travel to the best X in the world.
posted by clew at 2:39 PM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

"It's work, for sure. Not everyone wants to do it, or needs to."

And not everyone is able to do it. The physical activity of leaving the house hurts me. I pay a price for doing it. Not only that, but even if you're disabled and willing to make an effort that's much greater than it would be for an able-bodied person, of the kinds of things you can do to be part of a community, many of them are inherently not even possible for a disabled person.

Just to use a familiar example: mefi meetups. I've gone to several of them in several different cities. Some I've not gone to at all because there was an aspect that was prohibitive at the outset. All the others I've attended have involved either more walking than I ought to have done, for which I paid a big price later, or in one case renting an electric scooter (which, though eliminating one set of obstacles, created others), or limiting my involvement with one or more activities (either location or time). Basically everything is like this. I mean, this is what it's like to be disabled, it's a general problem.

But this very strongly factors into the problems of socializing and loneliness. You can write about how you need to go out and make it happen, but for some people that's much more attainable than it is for others. Those of us for whom it's very difficult, we count, too. And the article points out that disability has a strong correlation with reported levels of loneliness. I'm single, I'm over 50, and I'm disabled. I'm an introvert, that's true, but when I was younger and when my health was better, it was much more within my ability to find ways to meet and be comfortable with other people and not be lonely. I could manage it, when I moved to a new city or when I was feeling especially introverted, whatever. But it's much less manageable now. Well, it's not manageable at all. I don't feel like I do have choices about this now.

All of which is to use myself as an example of how similar things are true for many people. You can say that not being lonely requires an effort to socialize and that's certainly true, but you oughtn't assume that the level of effort and the ability of someone to expend that effort is the same as it is for some generic younger, healthy person. That's the best case scenario, the baseline. It's more difficult for others.

Contrast this to a society where inclusion and socializing is built in. As an introvert, I am well aware -- deeply aware -- that such a culture would come with its own aggravations for me. But I'm certain that this is a worse situation. Social isolation is unhealthy for most (not all) of us.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:41 PM on April 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

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