09 December 2008

On loneliness in a big city

New York Magazine put out this article about loneliness when I was family-bound for Thanksgiving. I just got around to reading it yesterday (it's called Alone Together), and it's so interesting. It talks about the "loneliness myth" surrounding New York; people have been saying for ages that being lonely is inevitable here because you're by yourself in a sea of strangers who are busy leading their own lives. This article is saying the opposite: the unspoken sense of community that one feels when around masses of people is more comforting and binding than we think.

Sun is setting in TriBeCa

Something that seems so obvious now but I had never considered: loneliness isn't about objective matters, but subjective matters. So, the fact that 50% of all New Yorkers live alone (wow!?) doesn't affect levels of loneliness much, because there is that tacit sense of community here. You can be physically alone when you go to sleep and wake up, but perhaps it is comforting that you can walk out your door and be surrounded by hundreds /thousands /millions of people. I found out that big cities have much lower suicide rates than sparsely-populated areas (New York's is the 3rd lowest in the nation, Montana's is the highest).

Another fascinating part of Alone Together was the parallel drawn between NYC and the Internet:
It’s easy to see the parallels here between attitudes toward online use and attitudes toward solitary living. Perhaps there was once a time when living alone meant you were a hopeless shut-in. But you can’t exactly say this if 50 percent of the households in Manhattan contain just one person. Like Internet users, solitaires have a permanent and ambient sense of the world beyond their living rooms and a fluid sense of when to join it and when to retreat.
I’d argue that New York and the Internet are about the same, in the way that a large bookstore feels like it offers just as many possibilities as Amazon.com—maybe slightly less inventory, but more opportunities to stumble on things you might not have otherwise.
Cool, no?

Someone at breakfast this weekend talked about increased face time with surface acquaintances – relationships the article calls "transient connections" – due to the Internet is robbing us of time we could be spending with those closest to us. But apparently even transient connections can be beneficial. "Weak ties are essential to the creative economy, as Richard Florida pointed out in The Rise of the Creative Class, because diversity breeds innovation." My friend Mike definitely leverages this; he is always organizing events around bringing big groups of people with similar interests together; and fantastic things always come out of his projects.

color gel

The piece also talks about the significant other factor, the difficult time young & driven single people can have here because of focusing so much on their dreams, etc. This post kind of went all over the place, and I don't necessarily have any particular conclusion; I just thought it was fascinating. Check it out.
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