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By Richard Handler
Islands in the Sea
The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century
Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
Sometimes it seems that the very idea of shame has been banished from our door. The underwear ads on bus stops are more lurid than the pornography of my childhood, while revelations of celebrity rehab, rather than a secret to be hidden at all costs, are a staple of cable TV. Until recently, about the only thing people appeared to be ashamed of was being exposed as making too little money (though with our current economic meltdown, that, too, seems passe). According to therapists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, however, one shameful secret patients are still likely to conceal is that that they're lonely.
Depressed? It's become popular parlance. People use the term even when they're just sad, forlorn, or having a bad spell. But lonely? Not me! It's like admitting—to use that most stigmatizing term from high school—that you're a "loser."
Still, the evidence is piling up that loneliness is an increasing problem. According to the 2000 census, 25 percent of U.S. households consist of only one person. Contrast this with population statistics from 1940, when people living alone accounted for roughly 7 percent of the population. Duke University researchers report that, between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average person discussed personal and important matters dropped from three to two. Most stunningly, say Olds and Schwartz, a husband-and-wife team of psychiatrists who teach at Harvard Medical School, "the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters, tripled. . . . Individuals without a single confidant now made up nearly a quarter of those surveyed."