Americans and their brewing loneliness
Updated: Feb 18
This is one of the biggest problems Americans face and one that is very uncomfortable for people to talk about
We spend a good portion of our days being social on social media, we go to jobs where we interact with other people, most of us have at least some friends and or some family, and all of these people have real names and even real personalities, all of this adds up to what is by any measurable account a viable social circle, and some people even have large social circles, but despite all this socializing millions of Americans are suffering on the inside, deeply, from a feeling of loneliness, and this is a problem that I think is growing. I believe the feeling of loneliness is an extremely common one and I think it goes unsaid for 2 reasons, first being that it’s an emotion that's hard to articulate well. Lonely might not even be the correct word for everyone, sometimes it feels more like being misunderstood, isolated, disconnected, or misplaced in society. How can a person express a problem they don’t know the word for? The second reason people don’t talk about it is that it’s a very difficult thing to admit out loud. It’s embarrassing, it’s depressing, it makes us feel weak, most people think they’re the only ones experiencing it, and by definition a person who feels lonely won't have someone to confide this very vulnerable thing with anyway. Instead, it becomes a secret which further isolates them and creates a self reinforcing negative feedback loop. I have way too many personal friends who are struggling with this, and I have struggled with this, and that’s how I know this is a really common problem. It’s also something that becoming increasingly worse for at least a few decades. Luckily for us, I’ve got some useful insights and even some actionable remedies that I genuinely think can help people. Why do I think this? Because for at least the last 5 years I have been thinking about, writing about, and implementing real world solutions for this exact problem and have done so with reasonable success. This blog might be new for the world but the content is old for me, and it’s not something I created on a whim, these ideas are ones that I take very seriously. Additionally, tinkering with abstract philosophical ideas like this is sorta my strong suit (my friends call it romantic daydreaming). This is the fix in its simplest form, people who feel lonely do so because they are not actively participating in meaningful communities. You have social media friends, work friends, gym friends, bar friends, and sports friends, but you still feel weirdly disconnected, a lack of people is clearly not your problem, a lack of community might be the problem, and I’ll reiterate what specifically what I mean by community:
a group of people who meet in person
on a regular basis
Who have shared values and ideals
and enact specific traditions together. Like a group activity.
These aren’t laws of science, but they do seem to work best when all 4 of the criteria are met Next I’m going to tell you how we got into this mess, then I’m going to give you some tools to fix it.
How we got here
There are more people living in America than ever before and we are more connected to each other than ever before, but people feel more lonely than ever before. How can this be? I believe this is the result of unintended consequences from transformations in our culture and I'm going to address three specific three one here, though there are more. The end of multigenerational households, the decline in weekly Sunday community meetings, and distrust spread through social media.
We no longer congregate
There has been an ongoing, decades long declining trend of religiosity in America, and while many Americans still claim themselves as Christian when asked, church attendance is way way down. Why does this matter? If we look at what Church is from a very pragmatic and objective point of view and strip out all the religion what's left is exactly the community I listed before. A place where people who have the same values meet in person for a few hours each and every week, look each other in the eye, get to one another over years, participate in some traditions together, and create meaningful relationships. So how do people get their community time now? After working all week in lifeless bureaucratic jobs with coworkers they can barely put up with they share in the singular tradition of waiting all week for Friday afternoon so they can go home and spend the weekend doing nothing. Of course we are lonely. That’s an empty way to go through the days, and even worse for the not a small percentage of people actively hate their job and their coworkers. I’m not saying that Church is the solution, I don’t go to Church and never have, I’m not suggesting that you should or shouldn't go, but if we can appreciate what it represents and how it relates to this problem of loneliness, we can understand how to extract the valuable parts, like meaningful community, while leaving out all the parts that you think are icky.
We traded family for mortgage debt
After world war 2 this country went gangbusters on building houses. Millions of Americans were able to buy homes which had never in human history been done to such a scale before, and it was such an impressive feat we literally still think of it as, at least part, the American dream. Houses were abundant and debt was cheap so everyone was buying their own place and starting independent little families and this went on for so long that our society became ingrained with this idea that moving out on our own is a positive cultural achievement and adults who still live with their parents comes with a very common negative stigma. This is not how other cultures work. In other cultures and for most of history, people lived together in multigenerational households. Part of that is due to financials, it’s obviously cheaper to live with family, most cultures don’t have access to cheap credit the US has, or the economic boom that America has experienced. This movement has come with a similar unintended consequence as not going to church, we lose the emotional stability and support that family provides. We didn’t weigh the relative benefits and detriments of this cultural movement, we just saw the availability to borrow money and in typical American fashion we signed up for as much debt as we possibly could without spending a second to think about what the downsides might be. Fast forward to today, housing isn’t even cheap anymore and we are so independent we find ourselves clamoring for human connection. Not as great of a trade as we had hoped. Young American adults are putting themselves in positions to struggle financially and emotionally just to avoid the completely arbitrary albeit potent social stigma of not living at home as an adult. I’m 38, I moved out of my parent’s house when I was 18 and I live 600 miles away, I'm not married and I have no kids. That's 20 years of little to no direct support system and a lot of alone time, I’m thankful that the Army made me mentally tough as nails, but not everyone was in the army, and the rest of my situation is quite common. Sure other people may have kids and a wife, but kids aren’t your support system, you’re their support system, and your spouse will support you but it’s just one person, that might be enough for you, I think most people are going to need more than one person.
Social media creates deep mistrust
I’m going to tell you something about the internet that apparently not everyone knows. My lovely and trusting girlfriend Miss Kate does not know this, my buddy Spencer has an entire YouTube channel dedicated to teaching people this, this is information that is in demand:
Everything on the internet is a lie
There is a significant amount of blatantly lying about who people are and what they are doing, committing outright verbal and visual fraud, in an effort to serve their own ego and most often to con money out of you. Everyone else, the good people who don’t lie, have pure souls, and the best possible intentions, of which there are many, are still only sharing what they want you to see. In it’s best light this still represents a lie of omission. If you do look at the internet with optimism and trust, and believe what people are telling you then you're at risk of crippling insecurity due to comparison and envy of how much better everyone’s lives seem. Neither of these help create warm and trusting communities between people, they do the opposite, they creates hostile levels of distrust and cynicism. We live in a world where people are constantly lying to us, it's no wonder we feel lonely.
So far I've made this blog about as bleak as I could possibly make it. I don’t know why I do this, I can’t help myself and I sort of find it hilarious. Good news though the fix for this is not too hard, explaining and understanding the problem is the hard part and we did the bulk of that. The fix for being alone is people, but not just any people because you probably already have people in your life but many of those relationships are empty or unfulfilling. This is exactly the kind of people we want to find:
They have have shared values and interests
They meet in person
On a regular basis
And do a group activity together
There are other factors that may or may not be important, but for simplicity sake this is the bulk of what I see as most important. Things like making money may or may not be a fulfilling enough shared interest. I love making money, but there is no larger meaning in it that will satisfy any deep human needs. Team sports are also questionable depending on the format. The group should also be at some core the same exact people and the timelines of regular meetings should be long, years, not weeks. Now you have the backstory, and the goal, but I wouldn’t leave you hanging without some actionable advice
How I figured this out and put this into action
About 7 years ago I started going to real estate meetups with the idea being that I could learn and network with people who were doing what I wanted to do. I quickly found that every real estate meetup had the same format: one person would teach for an hour then everyone would hang out for another 30 minutes to an hour. All of these meetups cost money to join or they were sponsor driven so all the events had this air of sleaziness to them because the whole thing was a funnel to make money but being disguised as a community. To be clear, since that time absolutely nothing has changed and real estate events are the same exact way. I personally can’t stand learning in a classroom setting and the networking part of the event was all I really cared about because I believed that creating genuine friendships was the real key to success (spoiler alert, I’m 100% correct). I knew at the time couldn’t be the only one who felt this way so in 2015 I started hosting an informal lunch group which had moderate success and I’m still good friends with those people to this day, but in 2018 in Las Vegas I began inviting some local investors to get coffee at 8am on a Sunday morning. This group would have no sponsors, no cost, no agenda, no format, and no formality, it was nothing more than like minded people getting together once a month to get coffee and be a community, I literally named it real estate church…and it THRIVED. We had 30 plus people showing up at 8am on a Sunday and we would stay until like noon or 1pm. This went on for about 3 years before I moved away but those guys still run this group today and it’s grown even larger and the core group of people who I started it with are now some of my closest friends on earth. I didn’t know exactly how to articulate what I was doing when I started, but I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this need for community. In retrospect I realize that people in our culture are actually desperately clamoring for it but they almost outright refuse to say it out loud unless someone else says it first, a giant game of emotional chicken. I run another real estate church here in North Carolina and when I move to Charlotte I’ll start a new one there. I tell you all this to say, you can do the exact same thing with relative ease as there is nothing special I do at these events other than invite people and show up regularly, make sure you're in a friendly and inviting mood, and act like a good friend to people.
How you can put this into action
You can’t possibly solve a problem until you do two things 1. accept that it's a problem, a process of internally understanding something negative and 2. admitting that it's a problem, a process of verbalizing said problem out loud to another person.
Admission is the first step to recovery
Admitting our shortcomings out loud to another human being is no small feat. Verbalizing things to other people makes them real, whether it’s professions of love or vulnerabilities of loneliness it’s far easier to suffer in silence than to look someone in the eye and take that risk. However, if you want someone to admit they love you back you have to first muster the courage to tell them, and if you want someone to help cure your loneliness, you have to tell them. Part of the reason I’ve been so good at building communities is because I just went first. Real estate church was always about community first and real estate a distant second and I made that clear which was scary because people showed up for real estate, but once I realized just how many people felt the same desire for community it became far less about my fear and became much more of a responsibility to help others. If you have this problem of loneliness and want to solve it, I suggest you find a way to take that risk of telling someone how you feel. Far more often than not people want to be kind and supportive if they can be, and you can trust me when I tell you so many others feel this exact same way. Lastly, effort and attitude go a long way, if you’ve convinced yourself that this problem can’t be fixed, if you read all that I’ve written and still see no hope for yourself, if you have an excuse for why nothing will work, and if you’re unwilling to make any efforts to change things, you’re sunk. Cynicism is a contagious disease guaranteed to repel people and happiness away from your life and bring you nothing but misery. There is no reason to sugar coat this truth, the future belongs to the optimist, not the cynic. Despite that part of this is caused by the internet, there are many solutions there as well: Meetup.com, Facebook groups, and a myriad of other websites are designed to bring people together and they will work if you work them. I go to the same conference every year for the exact same reason, and this is at least a partly viable solution. This is a problem caused by humans and one that can be fixed by humans, one that can be solved by you by applying a little effort and optimism. (If you're in the North Carolina area or you go to any of the same conferences as me, you're welcome to by part of my communities)