Patrons at Tie & Timber on June 10, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

How do you navigate life without a single close friend?

According to surveys and social scientists, for at least 30 years the number of Americans who say they don’t have one close friend — outside of relatives — has increased at a staggering rate.

We are a nation increasingly isolated and increasingly lonely.

For decades, we have known many older Americans are lonely.

In recent years, we have discovered teenagers are increasingly lonely and thinking of self-harm.

But now men — especially young men — are lonely at alarming rates.

How loneliness is tied to a massive American problem

I was drawn to the topic of loneliness and friendship based on comments on the PBS NewsHour by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He talked about gun violence and what we know about shooters; many are young men.

I then read his July 7 column on the topic: “Why Mass Shooters Do the Evil They Do”

Brooks writes:

“These young men are frequently ghosts. They often experience early childhood trauma, like abuse or extreme bullying. In school no one knows them. Boys and girls turn their backs on them. Later, when journalists interview their teachers or neighbors, they are remembered as withdrawn and remote. These young men often have no social skills. Why doesn’t anybody like me? As one researcher put it, they are not necessarily loners; they are failed joiners.”

Many contemplated suicide. Many don’t have a single close friend.

And, Broder writes, many are not necessarily mentally ill.

NPR reporter Jaclyn Diaz for a May 27 story talked to the co-founders of The Violence Project. The organization studies gun violence, mass shootings and violent extremism.

“Usually what’s motivating these shootings is an element of self-hatred, hopelessness, despair, anger that’s turned outward to the world,” said co-founder James Densley, a sociologist.

The shocking state of friendship

Patrons at Tie & Timber on June 10, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

The most important numbers I will throw at you are from the American Enterprise Institute. The institute describes itself this way:

“Our goal is to produce impartial research and offer nuanced analysis to inform honest public debate, and encourage more thoughtful dialogue and constructive interactions among political leaders.”

I think we could all use a little more “thoughtful dialogue” among political leaders.

According to Wikipedia, the institute is “center-right.” It’s based in Washington, D.C. and was founded in 1938.

Here are the key numbers

  • In 1990, 3 percent of the men surveyed on “friendship” said they did not have a single close friend — not counting relatives.
  • In 2021, it was 15 percent.
    (The survey was based on interviews with a random sample of 2,019 adults — age 18 and up — living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia.)
  • Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends.
  • Today, it’s 27 percent.
  • In 2021, 28 percent of men under 30 said they had not had a social connection in the prior six months. A “social connection” was described as talking to someone about an important personal matter.

The same phenomenon is happening with women, but the numbers are not as great.

  • In 1990, 2 percent of women surveyed said they did not have a single close friend who was not a relative.
  • The number in 2021 was 10 percent.

Yet rarely are women mass shooters.

The stabilizing effect of friends

Patrons at Tie & Timber on June 10, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

I cannot imagine my life without the counsel of friends and the joys of friendship.

There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed.

But I have not only my wife of 37 years but friends who are smart and who care about me. Without them, I would not have had the roots I needed to hold me up, to sustain me, in the darkest times.

I realize the world has countless lonely people.

Some are alone by choice, without being lonely.

But many — as columnist Broder put it — are lonely because they were “failed joiners.”

Loneliness is neither an excuse nor a defense for mass murder.

But, sadly, it needs to be acknowledged as a destructive and growing part of American life.

More interesting facts from the survey

  • Black and Hispanic people express greater satisfaction with friendships than white people. Six in 10 Black (58 percent) and Hispanic (56 percent) people say they are very or completely satisfied with how many friends they have. About half (49 percent) of white individuals say the same.
  • Childhood friendships are more common among Black Americans. Nearly eight in 10 (78 percent) report having a friend whom they have known since childhood. These friendships are less common among white (66 percent) and Hispanic (64 percent) Americans.
  • Men are more likely than women to report having a close friend of a different gender (63 percent vs. 53 percent).
  • Having an opposite-gender friend is less common among married people, particularly married women. Only 43 percent of married women — compared to 54 percent of married men — say they have a close friend of a different gender. In contrast, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of single women say they have a close male friend.
  • Men are less likely (21 percent) to have received emotional support from a friend. Four in 10 (41 percent) of women report having received emotional support from a friend within the past week.
  • Women more regularly tell friends they love them. About half (49 percent) of women say they have told a friend they loved them in the past week. Only one-quarter (25 percent) of men say they do this.
  • Men with female friends are more likely to express their feelings and receive emotional support than those without female friends.
  • Most Americans report having a best friend. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) say they have one. However, the number has dropped since 1990, when three-quarters (75 percent) of respondents reported having a best friend.
  • One in five (21 percent) Americans say they discuss politics with friends at least a few times a week.
  • Democrats and Republicans are more likely to have friends who belong to their preferred party.
  • Republicans have more friends of the opposite party than Democrats. A majority (53 percent) of Republicans say they have at least some friends who are Democrats. Less than one-third (32 percent) of Democrats say they have Republican friends.
  • Only 15 percent of those surveyed say they have ended a friendship over politics. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to do so.
  • The reasons for ending a friendship vary, but 22 percent of those who have done so cited former-President Donald Trump as the reason.

The above conclusions about friendship were compiled by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were from a random sample of 2,019 adults living in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. They were done May 14-23, 2021. The results were published on June 8, 2021.

This is Pokin Around column No. 50.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin