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The Lonely American Dream

Last week an article in The Economist described the worst punishment our society has ever been able to conceive of – solitary confinement. It described a prison in Texas in which Tony Medina, “spends 23 hours inside a concrete box measuring 7 feet by 11 feet.” He is forbidden any human contact. Guards pass trays of food through a slat in a door. The article ended with a quote by Medina. “Human beings are not meant to be isolated in this way.”

However, it increasingly seems that American society does not need physical brick walls to enact its own solitary way of being. Loneliness, which has been shown to have the same effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is on the rise. A 2015 paper by two Princeton economists found that “deaths of despair” which include death by drugs, alcohol and suicide are increasing across America with each successive birth cohort at higher risk.

What is the relationship between loneliness, individualism and community? From the very beginning, the American narrative has involved the story of the lone frontiersman. Rugged individuals who were to settle the West in wood cabins. This image has left a strong imprint on American consciousness. American society strongly emphasizes the role of the individual in determining his or her own fate.

While community also had a strong role in America, its role has been declining. In the documentary American Creed (2018), Stanford professors David Kennedy and Condoleezza Rice ask what, if anything, unifies Americans. In their telling, the American creed or civic religion is made up of two parts – an individual drive (it doesn’t matter where you come from only where you are going) and a collective enterprise or community. They fear that we have lost the second part. Bowling Alone, the seminal book by Robert Putnam, chronicles how social capital or the fabric of our connection to others, has been declining in America since 1950. 

So America today is characterized mainly by rampant individualism no longer held in check by communal ties. Already in 1832, the famous Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville saw the dark side of the American enterprising and get-go spirit. He observed an obsession with money and coined the word “individualism” to describe Americans. He worried that increasing material comfort would cause individuals to lose interest in their ancestors, descendants and contemporaries. In short, he worried that each man would be “shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

Yet Americans are quick to dismiss the dark side of their national character. Instead, the myth of the self-made man lives on. Rugged individualism. Bring yourself up by your bootstraps.

But without the protective bonds of community, unchecked individualism in an increasingly technological, industrialized society can be lethal. Already in 1897, French sociologist Emile Durkheim found that anomie and egoism in industrial society where communal bonds were weak contributed to higher rates of suicide.  

Isolation and the idea of being self-made are connected concepts. As David Kennedy explains in the documentary, the American psychological mindset involves a characteristic hesitancy to blame any factors beyond ourselves for the failures that we inevitably encounter. For example, during the Great Depression, when 13 million people were unemployed, the universal psychological response was to feel personal guilt and shame for the situation. Instead of solidarity, people withdrew into their own worlds.

The pressures to meet this demanding self-made dream start early. They can also have deadly consequences as seen by the suicide cluster at Gunn High School in Palo Alto from 2009-2015. Intense academic pressure drove adolescents to kill themselves by jumping onto subway tracks. Is this the kind of society that Americans want to live in? 

As Robert Bellah argued in Habits of the Heart, a famous book that delved into American loneliness, the private American dream of being the star who stands out from the crowd has a problem. “Since we have believed in that dream for a long time and worked very hard to make it come true, it is hard for us to give it up, even though it contradicts another dream that we have — that of living in a society that would be really worth living in.” 

The American dream of individual, independent happiness has increasingly become a lonesome and tragic one, and technology has only exacerbated the problem. Medina is right when he says that this isolation is unnatural for human beings. But thick walls are still being built all the same. Americans need to take a good and hard look at whether hyper-individualism is compatible with their communal enterprise. For one without the other leads to an increasingly alienated society.

Contact Anat Peled at anatpel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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