Gregory Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, writes:
. . . We may have multiple social networks and thousands of acquaintances and still find ourselves profoundly lonely. [I know many people like this.] A sociological study found that between 1985 and 2004 the average American’s number of close confidants declined from three to two, and that those reporting “no close confidants” jumped from 10 to 25 percent. Lynn Smith-Lovin, one of the study’s authors, noted that “you usually don’t expect major features of social life to change very much from year to year or even decade to decade.” But the data suggest a “remarkable drop” in the number and quality of friendships in American culture. The findings also confirm and amplify my anecdotal sense that more and more “connected” people, from CEOs to talented youth and young adults, are struggling with loneliness.
Why does a lack of confidants matter? We are created for relationship, and we long for support and encouragement from those who know us well. We are not likely to turn to Facebook when a loved one is dying, for guidance in vocational discernment, or for the joys and warmth of physical embrace. Nor are we likely to search out a casual business colleague to explore a gut-wrenching personal decision. We want people who know us—our histories and dreams, our joys and griefs, our hopes and fears—to be our guides through uncertain and sometimes choppy waters.
Further, our confidants sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. They can and do check our propensity for self-deception. They challenge us, support us and encourage us to dream even when we have given up. Even when they call us to account, we are confident that they are doing so with our own best interests at heart.
The destructive consequences of loneliness will likely afflict that 25 percent of Americans who have no confidants. Loneliness becomes a spiral downward that diminishes a person’s capacity to relate to others and to envision a hopeful future. Luther wrote that “a lonely [person] always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.” The loneliest people I know are the most cynical, and it is often difficult to befriend them or even to be around them. . .
There is a striking contrast between Europeans and Americans in this regard. Americans make friends quickly, while most Europeans – at least in France and Germany – have traditionally had a few very close circle of intimates. (I think national histories may have a lot to do with this.) The problem with the French model is that it’s very hard for a newcomer to break in. In the context of a global, mobile world, I’ve talked to a lot of Europeans who enjoy the openness of the Americans, but long for the depth of European relationships. I think we could use the best of both worlds.
Three ingredients: Time, intentionality, and shared goals and experience. What else?