In 1985, the average American self-reported having 3 close friends. Today, that number has shrunk to 1.
Nearly a third of all Americans even report that they feel they have no close confidants with whom to share joy, sadness, frustration — their life experiences. Meanwhile, rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in the past decade. Our young people are committing suicide at unprecedented rates, and each successive generation gets lonelier and lonelier.
Former surgeon general, Vivek Murthy began sounding the alarm on what he called the “loneliness epidemic” at the beginning of his term in 2014:
“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.”
It feels like our society is splintering, on course to break apart.
I used to think that increased digitization was at fault. Communication is easier and faster than ever before, but we struggle to connect on a human level. Each time we scroll through our Facebook or Instagram feeds, we live parasocially — in passive observance of our acquaintances’ lives, but never experiencing face-to-face interaction. We quantify “friendships” and “connections” with friend lists and follow counts.
I think that we’re in a “Trough of Sorrow” when it comes to connective technology. It’s a concept used to describe the startup journey, but I think it applies here. It’s the period of time in which there’s a partial solution on the market, but something is still missing.
The current array of social media and digital communication channels is an imperfect substitute for face-to-face interaction. Maybe we will reach a fuller solution through Artificial Reality chatrooms or nootropics that erase our need to socialize altogether. But I think the more likely result is that we will fall further into a dystopian social fracturing.
How many people actually have quality relationships? Shared laughter, meaningful conversation, and depth of interpersonal relationships — these are rarer than ever before. Smart phones and an array of social media platforms have become so adept at gamifying their user experience that each like, comment, and text creates a constant stream of dopamine. The quantity of these digital interactions gives us a rush that just feels good. We live like addicts, unable to put our phones away in the same way that alcoholics would nurse bottles. But it would be reductionist to claim that the solution was as easy as getting off our phones and interacting.
I think the truth is more complicated. The ability of our phones to hold our attention captive ties isn’t just us being swept up by a completely external force. We respond to it because of how we’ve internalized cultural narrative.
Long before loneliness became an increasing epidemic, writers like Karl Marx warned us of the dangers inherent in capitalism. He theorized that capitalism’s emphasis on output would turn us into shallow materialists. And it would alienate the worker by forcing them into repetitive tasks until they were reduced from a thinking human being into an automaton. By separating and dividing labor, our culture would create self-interested individuals rather than a cohesive societal unit.
Individualism has become a prevalent part of our society’s narrative. We tend to elevate individuals above teams until they become a part of hero folklore. We latch onto characters like Kobe Bryant or Steve Jobs, transforming their stories of individualist feats into legend. This ignores that the most influential accomplishments and ideas stem from teamwork and co-innovation.
As a startup founder, I am hyper-aware of how this narrative seeps into entrepreneurship. It directly contradicts the fundamentals of what actually make companies great — the team. While Jobs might have created the visionary blueprint for Apple, its influence was built behind the scenes Wozniack, Tim Cook, and a vast team of developers and designers. And yet it is Jobs with whom Apple has become nearly synonymous.
I imagine that if we did manage to cast away materialism and individualism, replacing them with minimalism and communalism, we might live better lives. My current line of work is an extension of this condensed personal philosophy.
In my third year of college, I found that 47% of all meals in the US are eaten alone. This statistic deeply affected me because of my own battle against loneliness and depression. Food had always been an integral part of my life, from having my mother’s Korean dishes as a child to learning how to cook in France and India during extended leave from college. I felt deeply saddened that dining, the original core of social life, was devolving into an isolated activity.
For the past 10 months, my team has been building Homecooked — a social dining platform organizing communal meals seating 6 to 8 at the homes of local cooks. The hope is that the communal-style eating, the small group sizes, and the warmth of the home dining room — these ingredients will all mix to cook up an integrated social experience.
While technology has created rifts in our social lives, I believe that we can continue to harness creative solutions to re-integrate our lives. My only hope is that I can add something positive to it.