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Alone Together

Studies show that loneliness is associated with morning surges in cortisol, the stress hormone, and increased vascular resistance, which results in higher blood pressure. They also show the lonely drink more, exercise less, get divorced more often, and have more family estrangements and run-ins with the neighbors. And they’re fatter. In one of my favorite experiments described in Loneliness, students were divided into two groups and told to evaluate … bite-size cookies. Specifically, researchers took aside each of the kids in one group and told them that no one wanted to work with them, so they’d have to work on their own. The others, by contrast, were each privately told that everyone wanted to work with them, but they’d still have to work on their own because it would be impossible to work with so many people. Then all of the participants were handed a plate of cookies and told to evaluate them. On average, the ones who had been told they were universally liked ate 4.5. Those who had been told they’d been universally rejected ate 9. “Is it any wonder we turn to ice cream,” the authors ask, “when we’re sitting at home feeling all alone in the world?”

Given how many New Yorkers live alone—in Manhattan, 25.6 percent of households are married, whereas the national average is 49.7—one would think we’d be at an increased risk for practically all these conditions. But Cacioppo points out that loneliness isn’t about objective matters, like whether we live alone. It’s about subjective matters, like whether we feel alone. To determine how satisfied people feel with their relationships, research psychologists generally rely on a twenty-question survey called the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which breaks down our connections into three groups: intimate (whether we have a partner), relational (friends), and collective (church, colleagues, baseball teams, etc.).

The results of these surveys have crucial—and positive—consequences for urban environments. Loneliness, it turns out, is relative. Widows are likely to feel better in a community with more widows (Boca Raton, Florida, say) than a community with only a few single elderly women. And singles are likely to feel better in a town with more singles … like New York. It’s true that marriage is still the best demographic predictor of loneliness. But Cacioppo stresses it’s a very loose predictor. People can have satisfying connections in other ways, after all, and people in bad marriages might as well be on their own: Cacioppo’s latest study, based on a sample of 225 people in the Chicago area, shows that those in unhappy marriages are no less lonely than single people, and might even be more so. Nor do rotten marriages do much for your health. A couple of years ago, Cacioppo teamed up with Linda Waite, co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, whose conclusions about the health-positive effects of the institution drove feminists and fatalists like myself into a tizzy. They recruited a new pool of sample subjects and more or less asked the same questions Waite originally did, but also inserted questions to see if their participants were lonely. And what did they discover? That married people were indeed healthier—if they weren’t lonely in their marriages. If they were, the health benefits were so negligible the researchers considered them statistically insignificant.

No one disputes the value of a good marriage, of course. Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, in fact tried to calculate that value, based on tens of thousands of happiness surveys collected here and in the U.K., and found that it’s worth $100,000—or roughly doubling your salary, because working Americans earn, on average, $46,996 per year. But you know what else was worth $100,000? A large circle of friends. And it turns out that Aristotle was right when he wrote in The Nicomachean Ethics that friends are the glue that binds cities together. In study after study, urban dwellers have a more substantial social network. In his 1982 classic about Californians, To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City, the Berkeley, California–based sociologist Claude Fischer found a 40 percent uptick in the size of friendship-based social networks moving from semi-rural areas into the urban core. Even the recent study that found we had fewer confidants found better news for city dwellers. “Based on what I’m seeing,” says Matthew Brashears, one of the authors of the survey, “networks in large communities may have gotten smaller, but people in large communities still appear to have bigger networks than people in small.”

“In our data,” adds Lisa Berkman, the Harvard epidemiologist who discovered the importance of social networks to heart patients, “friends substitute perfectly well for family.” This finding is important. It may be true that marriage prolongs life. But so, in Berkman’s view, does friendship—and considering how important friendship is to New Yorkers (home of Friends, after all), where so many of us live on our own, this finding is blissfully reassuring. In fact, Berkman has consistently found that living alone poses no health risk, whether she’s looking at 20,000 gas and electricity workers in France or a random sample of almost 7,000 men and women in Alameda, California, so long as her subjects have intimate ties of some kind as well as a variety of weaker ones. Those who are married but don’t have any civic ties or close friends or relatives, for instance, face greater health risks than those who live alone but have lots of friends and regularly volunteer at the local soup kitchen. “Any one connection doesn’t really protect you,” she says. “You need relationships that provide love and intimacy and you need relationships that help you feel like you’re participating in society in some way.”