New York Daily Photo Analytics

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Loneliest Number

Is one still the loneliest number? New Yorkers should know best - I was shocked to learn that 50.6 % (27% nationally) of Manhattan households are occupied by a single individual. Of the 3,141 counties in the United States, New York County (Manhattan) is the leader in single-individual households. The marriage statistics also deviate from the norm: in Manhattan, 25.6% of households are married, whereas the national average is 49.7%.

But, given the tenuous nature of relationships and the transient nature of the city, perhaps it should not have come as a surprise. And, the evidence is at my fingertips - on reflection, the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are in single households.

The first thought upon hearing such a statistic is that of LONELINESS. However, a number of books, articles, and research are doing much to dispel the idea that living alone means lonely. I have excerpted below parts of a 2008 New York Magazine article. I recommend the article - the comments alone provide a broad insight into the thinking and experience of many New Yorkers who live alone.

Alone Together
Manhattan is the capital of people living by themselves. But are New Yorkers lonelier? Far from it, say a new breed of loneliness researchers, who argue that urban alienation is largely a myth. 

“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.” 

New York State is tied for the fifth-lowest divorce rate in the nation.  New York City’s suicide rate says something even more profound: New York State’s suicide rate is currently the third lowest in the nation.

Many have made the same allegations about the Internet's alienating effects, but this has also been challenged. Some see the Internet as analogous to a large city like New York with positive social impact:

The idea that you’re isolated when you’re online is, to me, just wrong,” says Keith Hampton, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who did an extensive ethnography of “Netville,” a new, 100 percent wired community in suburban Toronto. “It’s an inherently social medium. What starts online moves offline, and what starts offline goes online.” Which explains why the people with whom you e-mail most frequently are your closest friends and romantic partners. “Online and offline life are inherently connected,” he says. “They’re not separate worlds.”

New York, like the Internet, also offers a rich network of acquaintances, or what sociologists like to call “weak ties.” There are sociologists who will argue that weak ties are the bane of modern life. We are drowning in a sea of them, they’ll say—networking with colleagues rather than socializing with friends, corresponding online with lots of people we know only moderately well rather than catching up with our nearest and dearest on the phone.

There is even evidence that weak ties simply make us feel better. According to Loneliness, the advice your mother gives you when you’re depressed—Get out of the damn house, would you?—turns out to be right. For most people, being in the simple presence of a friendly person helps us reregulate our behavior if we’re feeling depressed in our isolation. We are naturally wired not just to connect with them but to imitate them—which might be a good idea, if our impulses at that moment are self-destructive.

Hampton says he views the Internet as the ultimate city, the last stop on the continuum of human connectedness. I’d argue that New York and the Internet are about the same .... what the Internet and New York have in common is that each environment facilitates interaction between individuals like no other, and both would be positively useless—would literally lose their raison d’être—if solitary individuals didn’t furiously interact in each. They show us, in trillions of invisible ways every day, that people are essentially nothing without one another. We may sometimes want to throttle our fellow travelers on the F train. We may on occasion curse our neighbors for playing music so loud it splits the floor. But living cheek-by-jowl is the necessary price we pay for our well-being. And anyway, who wants to ride the subway alone?

Connectedness takes on many forms, both old and new, and in many places, whether online or in New York City. We can no longer make assumptions based strictly on number. One may no longer be the Loneliest Number :) 

Photo Note: I happened upon this trumpet player one rainy morning, playing alone in Washington Square Park, shielded from the rain under the arch. See him play in the video above.

Related Posts: Guardian Angels, Lonely in a Crowded Room, Because It's Not, The Last Taboo


Karen said...

Fantastic post Brian. I really enjoyed it. Love New York, never feel lonely there. Stats were very interesting. Great video as well.

Brian Dubé said...

karen - Thanks. I was really astounded to learn of the huge percentage of people living alone, both in New York City and in the US.

Brodsky Organization said...

In a city of eight million people how can you possibly feel lonely? That's one of the best parts of living in New York City, it can be very difficult to find yourself completely alone, but when you are alone, you're never lonely.