May 24, 2024

Seeing Each Other Is Good For Us – Do It More

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Hanging out with friends is good for your mental health and overall happiness. Despite the convincing evidence of its benefits, people are hanging out with one another less often these days.

“From 2003 to 2022, American men reduced their average hours of face-to-face socializing by about 30%,” Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic magazine. “The decline was even bigger for unmarried Americans—more than 35%. For teenagers, it was more than 45%. Boys and girls ages 15 to 19 reduced their weekly social hangouts by more than three hours weekly.

“In short, there is no statistical record of any other period in U.S. history when people have spent more time on their own,” he writes.

In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam notes that participation today has taken a different direction from those early years of American life. We don’t initiate getting together as often, and if we must be the ones to organize a gathering, we don’t. 

“It is precisely those forms of civic engagement most vulnerable to coordination problems and free riding – those activities that brought citizens together, those activities that most clearly embody social capital – that have declined the most rapidly.”

Through hanging out with one another, whether socially or serving on a volunteer board, we develop social capital, something Putnam sees as vital to a healthy community and happy life. But he sees our generation of social capital fading fast.

“Social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily,” Putnam writes. “Social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. When people are trusting and trustworthy, and where they are subjected to repeated interactions with fellow citizens…” they interact with less friction and more compromise.

“A third way in which social capital improves our lot is by widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked,” Putnam writes. We face common challenges and threats; we have common stories that make us proud to point out to others where we live.

When we meet and work together, the goodwill we create tamps down our “worst impulses,” he says. Too often today, people just interact with those who heighten entrenched attitudes, especially through social media.

When we create goodwill and show others we are open-minded and welcoming; when we work together for a common purpose, we create and nurture our social capital. “Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic,” Putnam says.

When we become planners serving on a committee or board, we develop associations that can lead to deeper friendships.

In our small rural towns, we have many common ties that bring us together. Sporting events, high school band and choir concerts, community celebrations, and church services bring us together. We are not seated in an auditorium or gymnasium with a thousand other people, but the same crowd of a few hundred at best, where we recognize many faces. 

Because we have so few bars and restaurants, and often they are the same, we can’t help but run into our fellow residents from time to time. A tentative “hello” becomes a short conversation in later months. Maybe we will end up sitting down with that person who was a stranger and getting to know them a little better if we make the effort. 

Creating even these momentary associations with others in our community, the simple “hello” creates a sense of belonging. We are among people we know, and they are all around us. We aren’t alone in a sea of mostly strangers.

Putnam’s book was published in 2000. At the time, he observed that social interaction in American society had been declining for decades. Bowling leagues, summer softball leagues, social and business clubs, and card clubs had seen their memberships wither.

But as Thompson writes, as early as the 1990s Putman “recognized that America’s social metabolism was slowing down.” With our decline of social metabolism came a rise in a more divided and less civil society. Loneliness increased with isolation. Resentment tagged along. So did depression.

The more piped-in entertainment we have – from radio to TV to the internet and all the devices it feeds – the less social we’ve become. Rather than gathering with friends, we gathered around a radio or a TV in our home when they became available. Our lives increasingly turned inward rather than outward facing.

 When there was one radio in the house or one TV, we gathered as a family. As each person got their own radio and multiple rooms in a home had televisions, we isolated ourselves from family and friends more.

Then came the internet, computers, and smartphones. They accelerated the drive to aloneness.

“Surveys show that Americans, and especially young Americans, have never been more anxious about their own lives or more depressed about the future of the country,” Thompson writes. As their face-to-face participation has been replaced by hours of daily screen time, teens suffer the self-inflicted damage for which they lack the skills or maturity to fight.

“Teens are dating less, playing fewer youth sports, spending less time with their friends, and making fewer friends to begin with,” Thompson writes.

In the 1970s, before the internet and cell phones, Thompson writes that more than half of high school seniors would get together with classmates and friends nearly daily. By 2017, that percentage had fallen to just above a quarter.

“Someone once told me that the best definition of community is ‘where people keep showing up,’” Thompson writes. “Well, where is that now, exactly?”

In our rural communities we have challenges brought on by addictive immersion in social media affecting youth and adults. Still, Thompson should come to a small rural town on a night when there is a school music program, a sporting event, or a meat raffle at the local bar. He would see crowds of people engaging with the people of their community.

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