Recently I wrote a post on Dorothy Day’s quasi-autobiography The Long Loneliness.  A few days later, I ran across this Newsweek article on loneliness in American society.  The news on the loneliness front is bad:  we’re getting more lonely all the time.  For example, over a twenty-year period, there was a three-fold increase in the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters. 

Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone.   The definition of loneliness given by the article is the same one used in most psychological research on the subject, namely that it is “an aversive emotional response to a perceived discrepancy between a person’s desired levels of social interaction and the contact they’re actually receiving.”  I have thought about whether the definition fit me.   I live alone and spend quite a bit of time by myself but am seldom lonely.  I actually would like somewhat more social interaction than I have, but not with the people readily available for that interaction.  (What I would like is to have more contact with people who live some distance away.)   It never made much sense to me to lament not having more interaction with others, and I do manage to fill much of my time alone with things that I either enjoy or think are useful.  My experience suggests that it is possible to have the discrepancy that the definition refers to without also having the “aversive emotional response.” 

The Newsweek article makes a number of fairly obvious points about loneliness persisting for many in our society despite increased electronic connections with others.  Facebook and MySpace provide only a thin sense of community.  Looking at Facebook can be the occasion for comparing one’s pathetic social involvement to the great relationships that everyone else seems immersed in, thereby evoking increased loneliness.  Sure, we know that Facebook Walls just present the most superficial of facades—they really do serve as walls that hide more than they reveal—but the stories they tell at least contain actors and scenes that seem much better than anything going on in our lives. 


On the other hand, perhaps the problem isn’t so much that social network sites are the relational equivalent of junk food as that, in both online and face-to-face interactions, we aren’t looking for what is most sustaining–a genuine encounter with another human being.  What Dorothy Day did much better than I or most people I know was to get outside the confines of self and take interest in others.  Her descriptions of the people that flowed through the hospitality houses, farms, and factories she frequented are the richest chapters of her memoir.  Exploring and cherishing the uniqueness of each person was an effective salve for her loneliness.  It’s a prescription that perhaps could benefit many in our age of isolation.