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Alone Together

The traditional social-science gloss on a metropolitan node like Grand Central isn’t all that different from Stephen Sondheim’s observation in Company: “Another hundred people just got off of the train … It’s a city of strangers / Some come to work, some to play.” Grand Central is a glorious space, but it’s also vast and impersonal, teeming with solitary commuters rather than one’s own kin and kind. Might some people not come away from such a place feeling profoundly estranged? Like they hadn’t a friend in the world?

They could. But in the sunshiny, low-crime New York of 2008, Grand Central feels much more like a village green than the melancholy nowhereland of Sondheim’s vision (or worse, Travis Bickle’s open-air asylum). There are tourists asking other tourists to take pictures of them; cops kibitzing with passersby; friends meeting friends to go for drinks. “All these transient connections were forming,” Cacioppo marvels. “These people weren’t even conscious of the many ways they were forming.”

Cacioppo, co-author of W.W. Norton’s recently published Loneliness, is part of the school of evolutionary psychologists—and certain biologists too—that believes our species wouldn’t have survived without a cooperative social instinct. In their book, Cacioppo and his co-author, the science writer William Patrick, argue that loneliness, like hunger, is an alarm signal that evolved in hominids hundreds of thousands of years ago, when group cohesion was essential to fight off abrupt attacks from stampeding wildebeests. It’s nature’s way of telling us to rejoin the group or pay the price. “Nature,” they simply write at one point, “is connection.”

It’s a controversial theory, certainly, not least because it’s post-hoc and therefore can’t be proved. But it has beguiling consequences for city dwellers. From Cacioppo’s point of view, our large brains didn’t evolve in order to do multivariable calculus or compose sonatas. They evolved in order to process social information—and hence to work collaboratively. “And if you look at any city,” he says, “you see that we have the capacity, as a species, to do so. They show we can work together, we can trust one another. We couldn’t even drive through city streets if we didn’t trust that people would follow rules that protect the group.”

Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”

A raft of papers and polemics have come out in the last decade that argue Americans are lonelier. The starkest was a survey in The American Sociological Review reporting that the average number of people with whom Americans could “discuss important matters” dropped from three to two between 1985 and 2004, and that the number of Americans who felt they had no confidants at all had more than doubled, from 10 to 24.6 percent. But the most famous of the genre—the work that launched a thousand debates—was Bowling Alone, a meticulous chronicle of scary numbers by Harvard public-policy expert Robert Putnam. It showed that almost every measurable form of civic participation, from church attendance to union membership to bowling leagues, declined in the waning decades of the last century. The book had plenty of critics, who pointed out that Putnam focused too much on obsolescent activities and organizations (card-playing, the Elks); that he gave short shrift to new, emerging forms of social capital, like Internet groups; and that the declines he documented were fairly modest. It didn’t matter. The book resonated, vibrantly, with laymen and politicians alike, becoming an instant best-seller and catapulting Putnam into the rarefied company of presidential contenders and world leaders. He’s worked with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair. He also met with Barack Obama during his campaign.

There are good public-health reasons to be concerned about loneliness. In the last couple of decades, researchers have started measuring the effects of social isolation, and they aren’t pretty. There’s been an avalanche of studies, for instance, showing that married people are happier and healthier, while the odds of dying increase significantly among the recently widowed, something known as the “widowhood effect.” There’s evidence suggesting that strong social networks help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. There’s even better evidence suggesting that weak social networks pose as great a risk to heart-attack patients as obesity and hypertension. There’s also evidence to suggest that the religious people who live the longest are the ones who attend services most frequently rather than feel their beliefs most deeply. (It’s not faith that keeps them alive, in other words, but people.)