Emotional Control   /   Spring 2010   /    Book Reviews

Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz’s The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century

James L. Nolan Jr.

In The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz examine the causes and consequences of growing disconnectedness in American society. The book builds in new and interesting ways on such previous works as Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Olds and Schwartz examine evidence suggesting that social capital continues to wane in American society. They observe, for example, that the number of households comprised of one person living alone has steadily increased over the past sixty- plus years. According to U.S. Census data, 7.7 percent of the population lived in a one-person household in 1940. By 2000 the number of one-person households had increased to 25.8 percent, and was as high as 48 percent in places like Manhattan. Analysis of General Social Survey (GSS) data, moreover, reveals a significant decline in the number of people with whom Americans discuss “important matters.” The GSS data also shows an increase in the number of individuals who say they have no one in whom to confide. In 2004, nearly one quarter of those surveyed reported that they did not have a single confidant with whom to discuss important matters.

To explain this condition of disconnection, the authors discuss the demands of two-income work schedules, the frenetic pace of modern life, the perceived virtue of being overly busy, the growing reliance on technologies to stay socially connected, the persisting cultural resonance of the American ideal of individualism and self reliance, and increasing levels of narcissism or self-centeredness in American society. One cause of narcissism that Olds and Schwartz overlook is society’s preoccupation with and relentless promotion of self-esteem over the past several decades. Given how much emphasis has been placed on realizing, actualizing, and esteeming the self in educational curricula and elsewhere, it is no wonder that researchers have found levels of narcissism among college students steadily rising since1982. A full “two-thirds of students now have above-average scores for narcissism, a 30 percent increase since 1982” (86). Given the authors’ willingness to critique the themes and practices of therapeutic enterprises, it is a little surprising that they don’t give some critical attention to the manner in which the self-esteem idiom encourages narcissism and related experiences of loneliness.

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