The Myth of Urban Loneliness

This interesting piece in New York magazine attempts to rebut the idea that big cities like New York, while buzzing with activity, are actually full of lonely people and that the size and pace of the urban environment contributes in some way to a sense of isolation. To the contrary, it argues that even though New York has one of the highest rates of single-dwellers (ie, folks with no roommates) in the country, they are “alone together”.

Here’s one graf about how loneliness, relationship status, and career stage are connected:

When the New Yorkers I know feel lonely—single women especially—it’s a product, too, of feeling asynchronous with their cohort. …[T]here’s a time in the lives of young professionals when they retreat deep into their silos, trying to make partner, get tenure, write their books, complete their residencies, or whatever it is that they’re hoping to do. If they’re lucky, they’re married, which helps sustain them through the work isolation. Then the next stage comes when they’re working hard in their newly minted careers (as partners, tenured professors, authors, doctors, or whatever it is they’re doing). And again, they’re fairly cut off socially, but they’re buoyed, one hopes, by the presence of a family at home. But if someone is out of step with this pattern—not partnered off, say, while still working really hard—New York can be a challenging place.

This seems right. I do think that if you’re entering an intense professional time being in a relationship probably beats being single, though this is oft-debated and depends on the situation.

Other nuggets from the piece include:

  • 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.)
  • The relationship researcher Arthur Aron has pointed out that new experiences, rather than repeated favorites, are the best way to keep romantic feelings alive in a marriage, based on a series of six studies of hundreds of couples.
  • “The idea that you’re isolated when you’re online is, to me, just wrong…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.”

3 Responses to The Myth of Urban Loneliness

  1. I was visiting New York (from Silicon Valley) recently while going through a very tough time in my relationship. I found being in the city a huge boost to my mood. Being in the midst of all those events, cultural venues, stores and people, and such a diverse group of them, made me feel that there are millions of people and opportunities in this life. It very much left me with a heightened sense of the possible.

    As for keeping romantic feelings alive, the new experiences tactic makes sense when you consider that courtship is usually the most vibrant, thrilling time in a relationship. This is when each partner is trying to earn the other’s love, not assuming that it is “unconditional” as so many people do after some time together. Classic taking one another for granted stuff. As a certain psychologist I know likes to say about good relationships, “There is no day off.” New experiences are the result of people striving and not taking days off.

  2. Krishna says:

    Companionship as a *dialtone* is indeed effective. Pick up when you want one, hang up if you’re comfortable alone.

    Though in a slightly tangent context, I could use a work metaphor. Some of the best investment portfolios I’ve built has been the outcome of shutting out all research, recommendations and analyst din. The investments calls that came like an epiphany, a sudden leap of intuition that set off an impulse to buy a stock that has been in my radar for some time, purely on simplistic price/volume action (Price +/- 2% a week with a mean daily trade volume of 100k shares). I check with my analyst friends and they say it’s a dud. That’s my clincher to go out and buy that because it’s not on their radar now. My run rate so far – 20% absolute return over a holding period of less than 30days :-)

    Not bad for a loner, not bad at all…

  3. As a soon-to-be college grad, I can strongly relate to wanting to go into my “silo.” It’s natural for young adults to desire feelings of true independence, even if that means some loneliness.

    On multiple occasions, I’ve noticed that I actually desire some degree of loneliness. Coincidentally or not, I am quite enamored by the prospect of living in an urban area.

    It’s all a big marketing idea. Urban environments feel full of energy and life, action and progress (both socially and economically). People in my stage of life often seem to desire this nebulous connection to the “collective energy” of a city moreso than direct personal connections.

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