Everywhere I went on tour for my new book this winter, I saw people looking down at phones, headphones on, in their own little worlds. In everyone’s phones — mine too — were orders for groceries, clothes, takeout. And above our heads were ads for the latest workout craze, in which you stare at yourself in a mirror that talks to you.
And this was life before quarantine.
What’s ironic about life during the pandemic is many of us were, essentially, socially distancing ourselves already. That’s in spite of the fact that we are social animals who thrive connected to a community.
No wonder we’re all so lonely and anxious. And the solution, we’re often told, is simple: Treat yourself. Take some “me time.” Indulge in some self-pampering. But “self-care” is not the answer.
The great turning-inward
Where once there were small neighborhoods of extended families, now there are small families living far from relatives, with few confidantes. Robert Putnam, author of the famous post-community book Bowling Alone (2000), revisited the question of social groups in 2015’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. He reported that “both kin and non-kin networks have shrunk in the past two decades,” with non-family connections decreasing rapidly.
For decades, there has been a great turning-inward. We work long hours, often commuting long distances to our jobs in solitude or working in the gig economy without the company of co-workers. One-fourth of the labor market has no paid vacation days, and those who do receive paid leave often don’t take it. In 2018, we collectively left 768 million vacation days on the table. The United States was labeled the “no-vacation nation” by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Community affiliations have plummeted. A major one: communities of worship. Per Gallup survey data, from 1994 to 2019 the percentage of Americans who reported having “never attended” religious services spiked from 10% to 29%.