“Do you bowl alone?”
“What?” you respond. “What do you mean–do I bowl alone?”
More than you ability to pick up the two pin, I am interested in your social support network. In his seminal book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the social ties that bind communities. Insert the beer frame at your local bowling alley (or the weekly Rotary luncheon).
While Putnam doesn’t directly implicate mental health in his seminal book (instead, he focuses on the steady deterioration of once thriving American communities), Putnam’s book prompts an urgent–and uncomfortable–question: What does Bowling Alone–and, more specifically, the loss of civic institutions mean for our collective mental health?
My answer: With “significant correlation” between social support and mental health, the loss of these community institutions represents a significant blow to our collective psyche.
In 2019, we live in a world of hundreds of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and LinkedIn contacts yet, paradoxically, few close friends. We are more interconnected than ever before yet somehow more alone.
The statistics speak to our collective isolation. According to this Psychology Today article, 25% of Americans have no meaningful social support at all–not a single person they confide in. Half of Americans report having no close confidants outside their family.
Bowling alone? Try working alone, commuting alone, watching TV alone, and, sadly, dying alone.
Anyone nodding solemnly? I know I am.
A prototypical millennial, I have moved from DC to Des Moines to Denver (twice) to New Orleans to Seattle for employment opportunities (for anyone counting, there have also been short-lived stops in Madison and Bloomington, IN). I am the Putnam archetype–the educated, IPhone addled 30 something that isn’t part of a community organization. As VFW national membership director Tom Kissell plainly notes, “Kids (meaning us millennials) today just aren’t joiners.”
He is right–and, not surprisingly, our mental health suffers because of our inkling for isolation. I have witnessed this in my own life. Moving to perpetually overcast Seattle, I struggled to adjust to the inclement weather and standoffish work colleagues (for any PNW newcomer, the Seattle Freeze is alive and well). Isolating myself in my apartment (and, of course, not joining any organizations), my mental health nosedived.
Among those bookmarking UPS and National Van Lines rates, I have a hunch that I am not alone.
Following our intrepid forebears, we are a mobile country–willing to uproot our lives for a promising job opportunity, relationship etc. In fact, nearly 25% of Americans have moved within the country in the past five years. Our mobility, however, comes at a cost. It takes months–even years–to recreate that sense of stability (let alone form those communal bonds). Quantifying moving’s emotional impact, one author likens its trauma to a divorce. And, in a sense, we are ending a long-term relationship–from divorcing our favorite restaurants to any lingering communal ties.
Hopscotching across the country, I recognize just how fleeting–and important–that sense of community can be. In contrast to my icy Seattle welcome, I flourished in New Orleans–in part because of my self-described “condo community.” More college dorm than condo, there were communal dinners, costume extravaganzas, and hurricane parties. Feeling part of a community (even if it was a beer soaked one), I thrived. And, not surprisingly, those intractable depressive/anxious thoughts suddenly didn’t feel so vexing.
The hard-learned lesson (other than don’t move to Seattle in late October): Bowling Alone is better book than lifestyle mantra–regardless of whether you pick up that two pin.