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Rebroadcast: Why Americans are spending less time with friends -- and what to do about it

(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

This episode originally aired on December 20, 2022.

A full work week. Hours on housework, yard work, time spent with your kids or partner. Then there’s all the time we spend online.

Where is the time for friends?

“I think the trickiness of social media is it gives us these snacks of connection,” friendship excerpt Marisa Franco says.

“And it’s like we’ve been subsisting on snacks of connection from social media rather than having the sort of nutrient dense meal of in-person connection.”

In fact, Americans are spending measurably less time with friends than they did a decade ago — less than half as much.

And that lack of friendship connections is producing a ripple effect across the country.

“We’ve seen this widespread national decline in civic and social … places where people would come together regularly in sort of a structured environment,” Dan Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life, says.

Today, On Point: Declining time with friends, increasing loneliness. We hear what to do about Americans’ lost connections.

Guests

Dr. Marisa Franco, psychologist and friendship expert. Author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. (@DrMarisaGFranco)

Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life. Research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). (@dcoxpolls)

Also Featured

Alissa Wilkinson, senior culture reporter at VOX. Author of Salty: Lessons in Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women. (@alissamarie)

Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach. (@daniellebayardjackson)

Listen: Songs about friendship

Related Reading

American Survey Center: “The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss” — “Coming out of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, Americans appear more attuned than ever to the importance of friendship.”

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Americans are lonely. We are spending less time with friends, and more time on our own. Now don’t take my word for it, take your own word for it.

(LISTENER MONTAGE)

Ten years ago, yeah, I was spending a lot more time with my friends on a weekly basis.

It’s much more difficult to make friends in 2022, almost 2023.

Trying to keep up with the kind of friendships that are in the show Friends and other, How I Met Your Mother is a little unrealistic.

It’s just hard to get together. Social groups aren’t as active or as convenient anymore. And if it’s a choice between on a Saturday going and doing something with my friends, or taking my kid to a kid’s activity that he does, we’re going to load up the car and go to soccer practice.

My friends aren’t accessible, or they’ve just disappeared.

CHAKRABARTI: Some On Point listeners there, coast to coast and across the rest of the country. Now, according to the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Time Use Survey, Americans spend only two hours and 45 minutes a week with their friends. A decade ago, we spent more than twice as much time with our friends, an average of six and a half hours a week.

It’s not a pandemic phenomenon either, though a long period of isolation certainly hasn’t done anything to reverse that trend. From 2014 to 2019, time spent with friends declined more than it did in 2020, and time spent alone steadily increased. There’s just so much research that points to just being in the company of other people for the simplest things has an immediate impact on your mood, and it makes you happy.

And I know this is sparking a lot of conversations, the results of the survey. But my biggest takeaway is I’m concerned about how happy we will be as a group if we continue to spend time by ourselves. This is Danielle Bayard Jackson.

She’s a friendship coach in Tampa, Florida, and she helps clients, mostly women, who want help making new friends, maintaining friendships, or navigating a friendship related problem. But it was an earlier career that first got Danielle thinking about helping people build and maintain friendships. Back when she was a high school teacher, she noticed how friendships affected her students.

DANIELLE BAYARD JACKSON: Their mood that day, their attention span that day, if I’m giving a presentation or not, their engagement, their academic performance. I saw up front how the state of their friendships or the drama they were having with a friend, a conflict or something like that, or feeling isolated from the group.

I saw the impact that it had on everything else.

CHAKRABARTI: Later, Danielle worked in PR with women entrepreneurs and quickly saw that they had the same struggles with friendship relationships as the teens she used to teach.

JACKSON: I’ve noticed that we are all still, to some degree, that terrified teenager who wants to be accepted.

Even the most confident among us. We know that there’s a risk involved in reaching out to say, “Hey, do you want to grab a coffee?” Or to say, “Hey, I really enjoyed hanging out with you. I’d like to do that again.” So that has never gone away. And the number one questions I receive as a friendship coach is, “How do I make friends?”

And it typically comes with some kind of qualifier. “How do I make friends in a new city? How do I make friends as an introvert, as a new mom?” And so I hope that shows us that we will always be having to make new friends. It’s not just like a school aged thing.

CHAKRABARTI: Back to those recent survey results from the Census Bureau that show Americans are spending less time with friends.

We asked Danielle, remember she’s a professional coach training people about making new friendships. How much time does she spend with her friends?

JACKSON: (LAUGHS) Not enough. Not enough. And I’ll be totally frank with you. I think a lot of it is because you feel like it can subsist on the coffee that you had two weeks ago, and that ought to last us for a while, or because I sent you a little funny text.

I feel like we touched base, we checked in.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Danielle looked at the survey results and at her own life. She has set a goal for herself to plan a week where she spends six and a half hours with friends, the number of hours Americans spent with friends until that decline began in 2013.

JACKSON: The first thing that came up when I started planning that is it made me question my relationship with everything else.

So it made me question my relationship with work, and I saw how that is a barrier to spending time with my friends. It made me question my relationship with my children and my role as a mother. Because my first thought was mom guilt. If I spend time with my friends, am I taking away from my family? I feel badly about that.

Despite intellectually being aware of the impact of spending time with your friends, and so it made me question everything else. And so I hope that it does the same thing for other people. If you continue to push friendship into the margins of your lives, it will impact you physically, emotionally, mentally.

CHAKRABARTI: Now that’s Danielle Bayard Jackson, a friendship coach in Tampa, Florida. And Danielle, you were speaking my language about the pull of work and parenthood. Danielle tells us she’s going to document on social media her progress in increasing the number of hours a week she spends with her friends. And we have a link to her accounts on our website, Onpointradio.org. So what’s really going on here?

That’s what we want to take a look at this hour. And Marisa Franco joins us. She’s a psychologist and a friendship expert and author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. Marisa, welcome to On Point.

MARISA FRANCO: Thank you so much for having me. Hello.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just start by asking you, have you seen a similar decline in how much time you’re able to spend with your friends in recent years?

FRANCO: I am not a parent, so I think that puts me in a very different sphere than both of you. And I would also, I spend a lot of time with friends, and I would also attribute that to living in Washington, D.C. and having friends that are a 10-minute walk from me.

CHAKRABARTI: But we can talk about the poll of work and parenting a little later in the show, which we will, but I do want to note that these Census survey results aren’t exclusive to people with those other responsibilities.

There’s an across the board drop in the amount of time we’re spending with our friends. Give me your first thought about why that is.

FRANCO: So I think if you look historically, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, he looks at up until from the ’50s to the ’90s, why are people disengaging from community life?

And he finds that a compelling reason is the rise of the television. That before then, we used to spend our leisure time around other people. And then we started to spend it alone in the four walls of our living room. But not only that, that television activates this kind of sloth like state in us.

I call it the plop effect. You plop down on the couch, and you won’t get off. And so I think taking Putnam’s research from there, now with the rise of social media and technology use, that really started to spike around 2012, the smartphone really began to rise.

And we also saw drastic rises in loneliness around that time as well, and so I think there’s this theory called displacement theory, which is basically the idea that if we displace our in-person interactions with our social media interactions, we’re the most lonely of all, whereas if we use social media to facilitate in person interactions, we’re the least lonely.

We’re less lonely than people that are off social media. I really think that what’s happening with the decline of friendship, is that the time we used to spend with friends, we’re now spending with our phones.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Now, I will always note that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but there is a strong correlation there. Because that time period of the rise of the smartphone and social media comes up again and again when talking about sort of fundamental changes in the way people relate to each other.

But let’s talk for a minute about the psychology of friendship. And first of all, start with, the positive. What are the measurable, meaningful benefits of having deep friendships?

FRANCO: Yeah, so loneliness actually impacts how long we live. More than our diet, more than our exercise, people that are most socially connected live longer than people that are otherwise isolated and have a great diet or otherwise isolated and exercise.

So it’s striking the impact of loneliness and our physical health. It also amplifies the progression of diabetes, of Alzheimer’s. Obviously mental health issues. There’s a study of 106 factors that influence depressive symptoms that finds that having a confidant is the No. 1 factor that prevents against depression.

And so but the other thing that I want to say that’s friendship specific is that there’s actually three different dimensions of loneliness. There’s intimate loneliness, which is a desire for a close, intimate connection, like a spouse. But there’s also relational loneliness, which is the desire for someone as close as a friend. And collective loneliness, which is a desire for a group working toward a common goal.

And so what that loneliness research suggests is that you can’t just rely on a spouse to not feel lonely. Even if you find a spouse that you really love and you’re only spending time with them, it’s likely that you’ll still end up feeling lonely. And I think a lot of us felt this in the pandemic. We’re living with a spouse and we’re still like, we need something different.

We need some alternative stimulation. So I think what this research really points to is that we’ve always needed an entire community to feel whole. And we still do, but we’ve really forgotten that.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ve forgotten it, or are we replacing it with other things?

FRANCO: Yeah, I think we are replacing it with other things.

I think the trickiness of social media is it gives us these snacks of connection. I’m seeing my friends’ lives, so I feel a little bit connected. I don’t feel completely deprived, and it’s like we’ve been subsisting on snacks of connection from social media rather than having the sort of nutrient dense meal of in person connection.

CHAKRABARTI: What’s interesting to me is we keep pointing out social media, but there are also lots of other ways in which digital technology is making it easier for us to not have to go into physical spaces in which we used to run into friends, right?

You can order your groceries online; you can get anything, just about anything from Amazon. You don’t necessarily have to go to the library anymore or even the bookstore, right? Because you can just get it on your Kindle. Digital technology, while giving us more independence, is really also making it almost effortless to not enter spaces where we could be meeting or making new friends.

FRANCO: Yeah, I think the inherent assumption with all of these conveniences is that our ultimate goal is convenience and not connection. And that we’re always willing to sacrifice connection for convenience. And I think for me, I’ve been asking myself, in what ways is this convenience not actually good for me?

And in what ways do I want to inconvenience myself? Because that will give me something else like connection. So I start going to the library. Picking up physical copies of books, interacting with the librarian, because it’s worth it for me, even though it takes more time out of my day.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, the other, just the other day, I was at the grocery store, because I still go, I actually live really close to mine, so it’s easy.

And I saw someone there who I care about, who I haven’t seen in three or four years. It was an incredible moment, actually, it just, it lifted me up for the whole rest of the day, just as I was buying my milk. But Marisa Franco, hang on here for just a second. Because we are talking about why Americans are spending less time than ever with friends and what we’re missing out by doing so.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we are talking about why Americans are spending dramatically less time these days with their friends and what it’s costing us. And by the way, this drop in a reduction of time being spent with friends predates the pandemic. It goes back beginning about a decade, but ironically for some folks, the pandemic actually caused them to be more intentional about nurturing their friendship.

Here’s On Point listener Donna Smith, who called us from Puyallup, Washington.

DONNA SMITH: I found that I was feeling very isolated, and so I opened up my garage, and three of my friends in the condos joined me, one in each corner, and we would meet on Wednesdays for cocktail hour, we called it at four o’clock and it soon has expanded.

During the summertime we ended up going into the driveway with shade umbrellas, and then when it got cold again, I bought a little propane tank, and we huddled around that. Because we had so many more than our four. During COVID time, that was one of the highlights of our week.

CHAKRABARTI: And by the way, Donna tells us that those happy hour gatherings have just continued to grow.

Last week, someone in her condo association hosted a group of about 12 in their living room for that weekly meet up. Now, for most other people, though losing friendships and losing relationships has had a really terrible impact on their lives.

This is Rick Howell, who called us from Belmont, Massachusetts, and he told us about the specific change in his life that altered how much time he spends with friends.

RICK HOWELL: My wife passed away in 2015, and we used to have a lot of friends come over all the time. And since her passing, we’ve had fewer and fewer gathering of friends. And then when the pandemic happened, everybody kept to themselves, of course, slowly, we’ve been having more friends come over or go out with other friends.

And that is nice. I’m glad to pick that back up. But I don’t think it’s ever going to get to the level that it used to be.

CHAKRABARTI: Marisa Franco joins us today. She’s a psychologist and author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. Marisa, just quickly, Rick’s call really moved me.

Because the loss of a spouse or a partner of any kind for people seems to be one of the major triggering events of the shrinking of a person’s social circles.

FRANCO: Yeah, absolutely. It’s obviously, you’re lonely from the loss of that spouse and then also lonely from the social context that might have been your spouse’s friends that were part of your life.

And there is research that finds that adjusting to widowhood, one of the things that predicts more positive adjustment is being able to have friends to help with that transition. But obviously the difficulty is when you’re getting into widowhood, you might lose some friends alongside of that. And so I think it’s a really difficult place to be.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Marisa, hang on here for just a second because I want to bring Daniel Cox into the conversation now. He’s director of the Survey Center on American Life and a research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. He specializes in survey research, politics, youth culture, identity, and religion.

Dan Cox, welcome to you.

DANIEL COX: Great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So this conversation that we’re having has really been triggered by that recent American Time Use survey from the census. So we should talk more about what’s actually in it. What stuck out to you, Dan, most in the data there?

COX: We’re seeing all, flashing warning signs that are all pointing in the same direction here.

So we ran a survey back in the spring of 2021, focused on friendship and what we did is we just copied, or we asked a bunch of questions that Gallup did in the early ’90s. And what we found is a really dramatic decline in the number of close friendships that people had, number of people saying they had a best friend, and that it was a particularly pronounced decline among men.

CHAKRABARTI: So actually, we’ve got a perfect example of that from one of our callers. This is Andrew Kessler in Madison, Wisconsin, and he left us a message on our On Point VoxPop app, and he says he’s finding it tough to find friends in his 60s.

ANDREW KESSLER: People even approximating my age are much more turned inwardly.

I think technology and things like what I’m doing now is talking to a machine, have had a big influence on the lack of socialization in people. And also, being a man makes it much harder. I know men for 30, 40 years superficially, but I really don’t know anything about them as people.

CHAKRABARTI: Dan Cox, talk about that.

Why is the decline particularly notable amongst men?

COX: Yeah, there’s a lot going on here and a lot to unpack, but a couple of things I think are worth mentioning. And first, I think one of the major sources of the discrepancy is simply motivation and priorities. That women are more invested in the whole variety of institutions and organizations that help them foster friendships.

For instance, mothers are much more involved in the PTA than fathers. And there’s, we can go into why that is, but as a result, when you ask about people who have developed close relationships through their children’s school, women and mothers are much more likely to have close connections built through that institution.

So it’s not, in one way, it’s not quite rocket science. If you put in the time, you can reap rewards. We see this in the workplace, as well, that we just had came out with a survey that asked about the extent to which women or men are devoting time to social activities.

So non extracurricular activities at work. And women coworkers are much more likely than their male coworkers to invest in those kind of activities. And I think we can look at it and say, “Okay, that’s not great that women are doing all this unpaid labor.” But on the other side, they’re reaping some social benefits out of that, too.

The second thing, just to mention quickly, is the talking of like masculinity and, this idea of quote-unquote toxic masculinity and how that can limit the men’s ability to form close connections. I think there’s something to this, although it’s not the entire story. From an early age, women are socialized to be more nurturing, and relationship oriented than men. And men are taught to perceive intimacy with other men as effeminate or weak and or maybe to view it as unnecessary, on average. Compared to women, what we saw in our poll is that men feel less comfortable sharing their feelings or being vulnerable or seeking emotional support from their friends.

But if this was the primary driver, then younger men who tend to have far more likely to reject traditional notions of masculinity should be doing better than their fathers and grandfathers, but that’s not the case. They’re actually doing worse. It’s young men who seem to be struggling the most when it comes to developing enduring social bonds.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Marisa, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this about men and some of the potential reasons why they seem to be struggling even more than women with preserving or nurturing friendships.

FRANCO: Yeah, I think Daniel brought up a lot of great points. I think it’s a little confounded though because young men are also using technology and I think they may have the force of less internalized traditionally masculine standards, but also the counterforce of growing up on technology and that being the place where they form their relationships. But I guess what I have also seen, and this is anecdotal, but I teach classes on loneliness, is that even for my young male students, it’s not necessarily that they intellectually believe that men shouldn’t be intimate with other men, or they shouldn’t say I love you to other men, but they still embody it.

Like they still, it still feels uncomfortable to them in their bodies because they have grown up around parents and fathers who have felt that way too. And so it still has an impact, even if it’s not something that people would choose for themselves, they still have a lingering sense of discomfort with intimacy with other men.

And I there’s this concept in the research called homo hysteria, which I think is aligned with traditional notions of masculinity. It’s the sphere of being perceived as gay. And I think this sphere, this homo hysteria can drip into any behavior that creates intimacy. That some men have this embodied fear that if I do anything that creates intimacy with other men, tell them how much I love them or value them or am vulnerable with them.

Does that lead people to call my sexuality into question? It’s like we’ve confused intimacy with sexuality.

CHAKRABARTI: Actually, that got, gets me thinking. Because does, do healthy friendships always require the early willingness to be emotionally vulnerable, or emotionally intimate with your friends?

Because I can actually imagine, I imagine friendships that maybe they get there over time, but that’s not necessarily the core of why the friendship is so nurturing and valuable in someone’s life. Dan, let me just turn this specifically to you. There’s also the kinds of friendships where people are, they come together out of common interests or common goals or you’re talking about being connected to the, excuse me, about being connected to the community.

Working together on PTA or, I don’t know, local potholes issues or going out hunting together, whatever it might be. Why aren’t those kinds of friendships and connections more prevalent amongst men?

COX: Yeah. And I think it would be a mistake to say, or to focus solely on close friendships or best friendships.

Point of fact that we know from a lot of social science work, that this, what’s so called weak social ties are also really important. So someone that you may see irregularly, see at the grocery store those are still valuable relationships. And what we’re seeing is the entire range of different kinds of friendships has atrophied. So it’s not just one type. And I think your point on regularity is also really critical. It’s seeing people, really, that really makes a difference. And I think that’s why Marisa brought up Robert Putnam earlier and that’s such a critical thing.

We’ve seen this widespread national decline in civic and social institutions from faith institutions, your local PTA, the decline of veteran’s organizations, all these different places where people would come together regularly in a structured environment, gave them a sense of belonging.

It regularized the interaction. You knew why people were there. And we’ve lost that. And it’s okay to say, hey, you need to spend more time trying to make friends. But I think without these institutions and organizations to help structure some of these activities, it’s just a much more difficult thing to do.

CHAKRABARTI: So that leads us to something that you call institutional detachment. But before we go into that more deeply. Dan is our resident guy at the table. I’m just wondering if you could tell us what you get personally out of the friendships that you have.

COX: Oh I think one of the great values of having friends, particularly friends of the same gender, is you can share experiences in ways that maybe not even your spouse can fully relate to, right?

You’ve gone through, you walk through the same path. And I’m going to actually give an example. I’ve done some qualitative interview, with interviewing with stay-at-home dads. And one of the things that they say is so valuable is that they don’t have the same kind of infrastructure to support them as stay at home moms do. There’s all these mommy groups. And often what I’ve heard from those folks is they don’t always feel welcome in those spaces. And so one of the things that in the conversations I’ve had is that they say again and again … “I want someone who can relate to my experience as being a dad and navigating these issues and societal expectations and all that.”

I think that kind of relatability that you feel like someone knows what you’re going through is just really helpful and important.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ve been talking a lot about men in particular because the numbers regarding the decline of strong social bonds between men are quite eye opening.

But of course, they’re not the only ones. Again, this is just an across-the-board phenomenon regarding lost time spent with friends. And let’s turn to a different group here. Claudia is an On Point listener, and she left a message on our VoxPop app. She says she’s in her mid-fifties, lives in Las Vegas, has four children between the ages of 20 and 27.

So they’re adults now, which is why Claudia told us she thought this would be the time in her life when she would finally have more time for spending with her friends.

CLAUDIA: In my life and the life of my friends, we’re all exhausted. It’s like the things that are required from us, from our children, from our partners as they age, it’s so much more emotional and mental as opposed to physical, doing carpool and extracurricular activities and whatnot. We’re exhausted. And we may love each other very much, our friendships, and we may want to actually get up and physically be together, but nobody has the energy or the inclination.

CHAKRABARTI: And Claudia also says, though, that the lack of time she’s spending with her friends is constantly on her mind, and it really weighs on her.

CLAUDIA: I’ve called my friends on the phone and said, “I’m calling you because I want to be a better friend, haven’t seen you and haven’t made an effort, but I love you and here I am. And there you are.” And yeah, there’s guilt and there’s a concern. And you don’t want to trash or abandon friendships, but there’s no emotional space for more, which I find odd. Cause that’s just not how it was supposed to be right now.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Claudia in Las Vegas.

Marisa, what are you hearing in Claudia’s story? Because I was quite surprised when she called us, because I was looking, I’m looking forward to a time where I’ve reached Claudia’s phase, and don’t have to worry about the fire hose of parenting and maybe knock on wood, work. But is that not the case?

FRANCO: That does sound really hard for Claudia. It’s interesting how she puts it. That one form of labor transforms into another form of labor, whether before it was physical, now it’s mental and emotional. And I think just to take a step back and think about what does the research say here.

Obviously, there’s variants in a lot of people’s experiences. But as we get older, during a time of retirement, for example, people tend to be more open to focusing on friendship. And during times of big transitions, people tend to be more open to friendship, because people experience transitional loneliness. Where during times of transition, you feel more lonely.

It’s because you don’t see the same people from before the transition, but also your identity shifting is a lonely experience. You don’t know yourself in the same way as your identities begin to shift. And I think that can maybe be part of the exhaustion that Claudia is talking about, too.

Like the really exhausting identity shifts that tend to happen. I think one thing that I would say to Claudia is optimally, connection is also a source of vitality, where after you connect with someone, then you feel more energetic. What the research does find is that we tend to underestimate just how much we’ll enjoy connection beforehand.

So when you’re like, “Should I go hang out?” It’s, “Oh no, this is going to take a lot in me.” But then afterward, you’re like, “Oh, that was actually really refreshing, and I feel recharged.” So that is something that could happen as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, no, that’s a really good point. That even though we might be feeling exhausted at any one particular time, just that little extra effort, we could reap major benefits from it.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: I wanted to expand the scope of our conversation about why friendships aren’t exclusively important to us interpersonally, from person to person. But how they’re actually important to us as a society, because they form the basis of how we connect with our communities.

So in that way, strong friendship bonds can influence intellectual and even political movements. Now, this is an idea that we encountered first that comes from world renowned philosopher Hannah Arendt.

ALISSA WILKINSON: For her, a friendship is something you commit to and you use it as a place to not just have fun and go to the movies, which I’m all about, but also to bounce ideas off one another and have serious conversations and learn how to argue well, learn that I don’t have to hate you if we disagree about something.

CHAKRABARTI: Now this is Alissa Wilkinson. She’s a senior culture reporter at VOX, and she has written extensively about Hannah Arendt in her new book Salty: Lessons in Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women. Wilkinson says Arendt believed strongly in developing friendships with people of different beliefs and opinions.

WILKINSON: How she thinks about it is that there are principled reasons that you don’t seek relationships with people who actively wish to harm you or something like that, but that there’s a great variety of human experience to be found in friendship. And that prioritizing it, making it important and continuing to pursue it can be not just fun, the way we think about it, or like some way to pass the time, but actually the way that we strengthen the bonds of true society.

CHAKRABARTI: And Wilkinson describes a scene where Hannah Arendt’s friendships were formed and thrived.

WILKINSON: It’s the 1950s, they’re in New York City, many of these people in her friendship circle are gathering frequently in her apartment on Riverside Drive to drink a lot of martinis (LAUGHS) and to talk about what was going on.

A lot of them were teaching at Columbia or different universities and seeing stuff bubble up in the classroom, they’re seeing articles appear in journals like the Partisan Review or Commentary or The New Yorker. All of this is fodder for conversation and gossip, let’s be clear.

CHAKRABARTI: But Wilkinson also says that this was a time when the world was learning the details about what really happened in the Holocaust, the 1950s, as she just said. And many of Hannah Arendt’s friends are Eastern European Jews who had fled before the war. Now later, obviously, remember that Hannah Arendt famously went to Israel to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man known as the architect of the Holocaust.

WILKINSON: When that started coming out in the New Yorker, she saw some of her friendships really fall apart. Because people were really horrified by some of the ideas she had in there about the banality of evil, about Eichmann being a kind of an ordinary man who had ended up enacting this horrific thing. But it is interesting to me how many times she insisted on pursuing friendships with people, even despite the conflict, and even in ways that I think normally our friendships would fall apart.

CHAKRABARTI: But here’s the thing, Hannah Arendt didn’t think friendships were important simply to us as individuals. She believed that democracy depended on it. Arendt was convinced that strong, deeply developed friendships help preserve a sense of community and a sense of self. She theorized that totalitarianism thrives when that individuality is lost, because it makes people easier to control.

WILKINSON: For her, friendship is a place that is subversive and that fights against tyranny and authoritarianism. That it is a place where individuals, and that’s really important to her thinking, individual people come to know other people who are different from themselves. Even if we have many things in common, and usually we do when we’re friends.

I’m still a different person from you and there are reasons for that. And it is in our individuality and in my recognition of our difference and your recognition of our difference that we start to learn how to truly love another person in a sort of friendship way. But that we also then can preserve our individuality.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Alissa Wilkinson, senior culture reporter at VOX and author of Salty: Lessons in Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women. Now, Dan Cox, we had just begun earlier to talk about what you call institutional detachment. So tell me more about that and connect it to what we just heard about Hannah Arendt’s theory about the political importance of friendships.

COX: Yeah. There’s been a lot of great social science work that has found that institutions are a really critical way for us to associate with people who are different from ourselves. You think of places of worship. And although they have also historically been pretty segregated by race and ethnicity.

Again, there’s a lot of potential for these institutions to bring people together. And a lot of these relationships across politics or values or religion can be interpersonally pretty challenging, but societally, they’re crucial, right? If we’re going to be increasingly diverse by race and sexuality and politics, that we need to learn how to get along and how to manage our differences in a way that I think we’re not doing such a great job at.

And we see that people who have friendships across politics, they’re much more moderate in their beliefs, they’re less likely to have extreme attitudes, their views of their political opponents are much less negative. And in a time of growing political polarization, that’s incredibly important, and unfortunately, I think we’re moving a little bit in the wrong direction. Where we’re seeing, whether it’s friendships or marriages or relationships, are increasingly becoming politically segregated. And we’re seeing this, particularly in the dating context.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Marisa, this actually, obviously I’m a mom. So lots of things come back to raising kids for me, but there’s this notion that I do fundamentally believe in, that when kids are young and they play with each other, and they play with their friends, that’s this proving ground for learning how to be an emotionally mature and responsible adult, right?

Because you get in fights, and you work it out. You create your own set of rules and figure out how to get along with others and what happens when a game falls apart. Good for adulthood, but it seems, it sounds like the same is absolutely true for adults within their friendship groups, because if those groups are diverse enough there are going to be disagreements and differences of opinion and working out problems.

But that again is a proving ground for then how we might connect with our societies at large and people we don’t know so well, right?

FRANCO: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting idea. Like friendship as a microcosm for society. And I do think social progress won’t happen without it being on the backbone of human connection.

I think that there’s other things that also have to happen for social progress, but connection has to be part of the foundation. And this is apparent from research that finds that when you’re friends with someone from a different group than your own, you become more likely to support policies that benefit that group.

And not only that, your friends that don’t necessarily know this other friend that you have from a different group are also more likely to support policies that benefit that group. So this research suggests that in some ways our political decisions are very emotional, and they’re tied to our emotional experiences of other people, that then determine intellectually how we forage through political information and determine what our views are.

And so forming an emotional connection, I think, facilitates openness to being a supporter of causes that don’t necessarily personally benefit you, but in some ways can almost feel like they’re benefiting you. Because when we get close to people, there’s this theory called inclusion of others in the self, that we begin to include them in our sense of self.

So what hurts them hurts us. What benefits them benefits us. And we see this at the neural level, right? Like our brains empathize with our friends like they would empathize with something happening to us.

And so that’s part of the reason why, you know, when we become friends with people, we’re more likely to invest in policies that are going to benefit them, thus creating more of a foundation for the progressiveness of the society.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. It suddenly occurs to me that there are a lot of ways people are social creatures, right?

We are going to seek out connections with others, most of us, in whatever way we can. But the point that you were making earlier, Marisa, is that some of these connections just don’t provide the same benefits as friendship. But I think folks who say they drift towards extreme online groups, or even in person groups, would say that that’s a community and they’re my friends.

And so why is that bad? So I suppose I should ask you, how would you define what a healthy friendship is?

FRANCO: It’s complex. Because we do see, for example, from marginalized groups, that having friends that share their identity has specific benefits, like LGBT communities, having friends that are LGBT decreases loneliness more than it does having friends with people that are heterosexual.

So there is an argument to be made that in, for some ways, having a shared community with people that are similar to you, in some ways, stabilizes your sense of identity, might offer something specific for your mental health. I think like Dan was talking about earlier, with men going through transitions, like to have other men around them who can understand their experience.

But I think being friends with someone different from you gives you a different set of experiences, right? Like we all have, as humans, we all have a desire for stability and for growth, right? And so having those friends that feel like really get us and understand us, give us that stability, having those friends that are different from us and challenge us can give us that growth.

And so it depends on what we need in a particular moment, how vulnerable we are at a particular moment, which might determine what types of friendships we’re looking for.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so we’re rounding towards the end of this conversation here. And I must ask, what do we do about this? Dan, what would you say needs to be done both by individuals and then communities or us as a nation to reverse this trend of the reduction of time that we’re spending with our friends?

COX: I think we can start earlier in modeling this. I wrote not too long ago about how Generation Z is actually uniquely lonely if you look at their formative experiences, so how they were raised, how they spent their time. Compared to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers Gen Z reports being far more lonely during their childhood years.

And I think a lot of that has to do with how they’re being raised and what they’re being told to value. So they’re being told value distinctiveness and achievement. And they’re, by any measure, an incredibly impressive generation. They’re more likely to avoid drug use and they have lower rates of teen pregnancy.

More years of formal education and all these kinds of metrics that we’re like, “Oh yeah they’re very impressive,” but they’re also really lonely. And I think part of that, particularly among middle class, upper middle-class families, is they’re spending so much time at, extracurricular activities, whether it’s art or sports.

We heard early in the program the father saying instead of hanging out with friends, I’m going to go to soccer, take my kids to soccer practice. And that’s the orientation we’re giving. And if you look at the trends, young people growing up today are spending far less time sort of roaming the neighborhood that I did, with my brothers on bikes growing up, and more in structured activities.

And I think we need to think not just about academic and intellectual development, but social development as well, and how best to really encourage that. And I think some of it has to do with just giving kids more free time to develop, nurture, and develop friendships in their sort of own way.

CHAKRABARTI: Dan, I absolutely hear you. Because I had the same kind of growing up. And I will wax poetical about being able to ride my bike around and have total freedom and just hanging out with my friends and having it not be very structured. At the same time, though, we’re not necessarily going back to that with young people in this country anytime soon.

Marisa, what could we do in lieu of being able to go back to a time where Dan and I could just ride our bikes everywhere in order to create the environments that can help people, and we’ll start with young people, nurture better friendships?

FRANCO: I think this has to be tackled on a policy level. It really does, because if so many people are lonely, it’s not every individual’s fault that they’re lonely.

And I think, the UK has a Minister of Loneliness and is implementing curriculum in schools for social connection. And we haven’t really caught up at the same level. We’ve had sweeping policies when it comes to weight, we’ve had sweeping policies when it comes to tobacco use, but we know that loneliness affects our longevity more, and we haven’t caught up to figuring out what does it look like to implement sweeping policy to help people feel better connected to each other.

And so I think that’s really unfortunate, that we’re not taking loneliness as seriously as other social ills and not dedicating the same resources, the same intentionality, the same policies. I think also, I think that younger people are just developing high rates of addictive behavior around social media and technology.

And it’s that compulsive, addictive relationship with technology that really impacts mental health the most and impacts social connections the most. And so I also think we need to like have some guardrails in place, like we do with other sort of addictive items. Wherein we are guiding younger people, are putting some friction in place so that they’re not using social media in these ways that are really harming them and their ability to connect and their mental health. Because their mental health of Gen Z is like at crisis rates. With some data finding that 50% to 60% of Gen Z is like meeting criteria for a mental health diagnosis.

Like it’s really bad. And I just don’t think we’re doing enough to take this seriously. And I think it behooves all of us to just be a lot more intentional about targeting this issue, rather than just leaving it up to individuals.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I would say that just starting within our own families, we can do that. At least for a couple of days, just have digital Sabbaths more. Or instead of sending a text to a friend, try and go see that person or invite that person over.

I’m going to officially say to both of you that I will try those things.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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