Even before COVID-19 and social distancing consumed our nation, we were reading headlines about the “loneliness epidemic” as loneliness and depression seemed to be consistently rising across multiple demographics. Researchers at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have discovered that there is a high correlation between loneliness and political involvement.
Dr. Ryan Streeter is Director of Domestic Policy Studies at AEI, and he has written an article titled “The Lonely (Political) Crowd.” Dr. Streeter joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss his article and the correlation between loneliness and political involvement.
“When people are civically engaged, they’re less lonely,” says Dr. Streeter. “We found one exception to that, and that is people who say their chief civic outlet is politics. […] We can speculate as to why that is, but I think there’s something about political activity which creates a kind of tribalism.”
Does this mean we should avoid political engagement in order to avoid loneliness? Absolutely not. “People who spend time politically engaged but who are also civically engaged—engaged in their neighborhood, engaged in a house of worship—they don’t have those same sorts of effects,” Dr. Streeter shares. “There’s quite a large body of social science research that shows the people who are religious are less lonely and are happier with their lives.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Ryan Streeter expand on loneliness and its connection to political involvement, cohabitation, and much more.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Even before social distancing was a thing, we were seeing a lot of headlines about a loneliness epidemic in the United States. Depression and suicide rates have been increasing dramatically among some segments of our population. Interestingly, there appears to be a connection between loneliness and political involvement. Since it’ll be virtually impossible to avoid politics especially this year—and with all that’s going on—it might be helpful to learn ways to counterbalance their influence.
Dr. Ryan Streeter is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Streeter was Deputy Chief of Staff for Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana. He is author of a recent article, “The Lonely (Political) Crowd,” where he talks about the connection between political involvement and loneliness, and ways we can counter loneliness during this time that is both socially isolating and politically charged.
Dr. Ryan Streeter, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DR. RYAN STREETER: Thanks for having me on. It’s good to be with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: In your article you talk about “the spread of politically charged loneliness.” What do you mean by that?
DR. RYAN STREETER: Well, this is interesting: it popped out of some survey research that we’d been doing and we didn’t go looking for this in particular. We’ve been doing some survey research at AEI, looking at attitudes about a whole range of things, about how well people are doing at the community level. We know the country is polarized and we know that people are at each other’s throats when it comes to platforms like Twitter and the like.
But we wanted to understand, how are people actually doing when they’re not just talking about politics? So we asked a whole range of questions, questions that social scientists ask to gauge people’s sense of loneliness and social isolation. There’s a relatively sophisticated scale that you can create out of about 19 or 20 questions in that regard. And then we asked people a whole bunch of other things about their involvement in their community, and what kinds of things are they volunteer in. What was striking is that for everybody who volunteers at church, or at a local charity, or anyone who participates weekly in an athletic or sports club—people that are regularly engaged with others have lower loneliness levels than those who are not. When people are civically engaged, they’re less lonely, that stands to reason. We found one exception to that, and that is people who say their chief civic outlet is politics. And we found that for people who volunteer mostly in politics—you know, volunteering for campaigns or advocacy organizations—their loneliness levels are higher than the national average. And we found this to be the case among all adults. We found that active young people in their twenties and into their thirties are about seven times more likely to volunteer in politics than those who are not lonely.
So loneliness among young adults and political engagement is particularly pronounced, but we see it throughout all adults. We can speculate as to why that is, but I think there’s something about political activity which creates a kind of tribalism. And for people who don’t have other tribes—they don’t have other local communities that they’re a part of—politics creates kind of a sense of meaning and sense of belonging. It seems to attract people that don’t have those other social supports in their lives.
TRACI GRIGGS: We never want to discourage people, especially us here at the North Carolina Family Policy Council, from participating in politics, especially in influencing public policy. What are some of your recommendations for us?
DR. RYAN STREETER: That’s a very important point. Obviously our political life is crucially important to how well we’re doing as a country, and our involvement in politics is important. I think what emerges from our research and in other research that’s out there that I find complimentary, is that you need other outlets in your life. I mean, people who spend time politically engaged but who are also civically engaged, and engaged in their neighborhood, and engaged in a house of worship, they don’t have those same sorts of effects. So being locally connected with others, creating good in your community, your town, is really important. You know, we find that when you ask people where they get a strong sense of community, people still get a sense of community more on average from their neighborhood and the city where they live than they do their political ideology or the race or ethnicity. So in this age of identity politics, when we’re all kind of splitting each other up by political ideology and the like, it turns out that people care about where they’re from; people care about their neighborhood. It’s important to be engaged locally. And I think that will bring a healthier tone to our politics as people look to it for less meaning than it should actually be able to provide in their lives.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right. So of course, we are in the middle of isolating ourselves. What kind of suggestions do you have for us as far as how we can get alternate kinds of engagement when we have to stay home?
DR. RYAN STREETER: Yeah, that’s a great question. And we’re all kind of dealing with this right now, and I’m hearing and seeing this kind of virtual community, and it’s no substitute for the real thing of course. But fortunately, we’re having this moment when we have technology that allows us to get together through platforms like Zoom and others where people are able to dial in and be together. And I think the longer we all spend in self-isolation, the more we’ll find ourselves willing to actually share a meal with people digitally that way. What we found in our work is that when people are in touch digitally with the people they have established relationships with already, that communication still maintains a deep sense of closeness.
And even before this crisis—you may be able to identify with this—you have a group of friends or members of your family that you haven’t actually seen in a while but you’re on a text thread together, you talk to each other every day, and that maintains a closeness that wasn’t really possible before we had this technology. So even though a lot of screen time can be blamed for loneliness in young people—that has been claimed and studied a little bit—there is also an upside to our screens, which is that they do facilitate ongoing communication with people we care about. I think it’s very hard to develop close relationships on a screen, but the screens are good for prolonging and deepening those relationships that we already have. Texting regularly and calling regularly with people that you know and care about is important for maintaining those relationships.
And you know, I can think of a text thread with three or four friends where we probably haven’t all been in the same room in over a decade and yet we’re in touch almost every day. Those relationships are real, deep and meaningful, and I know that I could call on those friends for anything if I needed help. I’m sure that people listening can also identify with that. So being able to see faces is important, but being able to hear each other’s voice on the phone or even hear it when we see the text—once we know what people’s voices sound like—is still pretty valuable and goes a long way to maintaining strong social ties.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s talk a little bit more about how among some segments of our population, depression rates have soared, suicide rates have soared. Is there a difference between this loneliness that some of us are feeling and that kind of depression, do you think?
DR. RYAN STREETER: There’s been a lot of research over the years trying to understand the relationship between loneliness and depression, and they’re certainly correlated in a number of ways. It is possible for people to be depressed who are in the middle of a good relationship, and it’s possible for people to feel lonely and not to be depressed. So, there’s not a one-to-one correlation.
I think what is worth mentioning is that for all of the attention given to what has been—it feels wrong to call it a “loneliness epidemic” now that we’re in the middle of the pandemic—but before the pandemic, that was a very common expression. People talked about loneliness in America; this has been an issue going back for decades and decades. Almost every generation seems to discover another segment of the population that is struggling with loneliness. Most typically are claims about young people being lonely. The research going back all the way to the 50s shows that loneliness is always a greater problem with younger people, and that’s because younger people haven’t been living in their place of residence for that long, and they’re less likely to be married. All of these things are associated with being lonely.
So I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of people that are experiencing extreme social isolation. I’ve been a little bit of a skeptic of some of the claims being made about the loneliness epidemic because they’re not really based on very good data. We have very good data in our survey, along with some others that have gone into depth on these issues. I think I found very consistent things, that is that about a third of Americans will say that they feel socially isolated or lonely from time to time, but it’s really down in the single digits where people are kind of chronically in that condition. So it’s possible for someone to say that they have moments or episodes of loneliness, but they also will say that they have people that they’re close to, people that they can rely on in times of need, and groups that they feel a part of. And when you ask kind of that whole battery of questions, you realize that loneliness is a more complicated thing than has often been recorded. The good news in all of that is that even when people are lonely and feeling socially isolated, we know that certain things bring loneliness levels down. Regular engagement in religious organizations does. That’s one very, very strong relationship between lower levels of loneliness and higher levels of religious engagement. Marriage makes a big difference, and what’s surprising to some people is that people who are living together—co-habiting—their loneliness levels are closer to singles than they are to married people. There’s something about being married which really brings that down; I’m sure a lot of married listeners can understand that.
Civic engagement, being involved in your communities, I mentioned earlier also lowers loneliness level. People who are doing all of those things—married people who are regular members of a house of worship, who are also civically engaged in their community—are about the least lonely people in the country. And so those are good things for us to keep in mind as we try to understand the nature of the problem.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s revisit people who are participating in religious organizations. Talk a little bit more about why you found that to be an important component.
DR. RYAN STREETER: Our research is consistent with other work that’s been done on this. There’s quite a large body of social science research that shows the people who are religious are less lonely and are happier with their lives. By religious, the social science usually uses the term “religiosity,” which has to do with how you respond to questions like, “Is God important to you?” “How often do you pray?” and “Do you attend a house of worship?” and if so, “How often?” And we ask those same questions in our survey and found what others have found, which is that people who are going to church basically every week, their sense of life satisfaction is much higher. Their feelings of loneliness are much lower.
The work of the famous social scientist Bob Putnam—Robert Putnam at Harvard—who is famous for his book Bowling Alone. But he followed up that book with one called American Grace. He looked in depth at this issue as well, and found that when people have close friends in their houses of worship, the effect of those friends on their lives is greater than the effect of good friends outside of a house of worship. Your fellow members of your church, people that you are regularly with in the context of a house of worship, produce a greater effect in your life. And I think that’s because the deep ties that exist within a faith community and within the shared religious beliefs are just deeper and more important than say the ties you feel with someone who cheers for the same sports team that you do, or even someone that works in your office at your place of employment. This regular engagement is what matters. For people who only go to church on the holidays, or people that are only occasionally at a house of worship, their levels of loneliness are closer to those who don’t go at all than to those who go regularly. So it’s that regular commitment. It’s when your faith is important enough to you that you consider yourself a member of a faith community and you’re there regularly, developing relationships there.
TRACI GRIGGS: So you said that cohabiters—people that are living together with someone—don’t experience a lot of the benefits. Why is that the case?
DR. RYAN STREETER: Just like the research on religion, there’s a very large body of social science work that looks at the effect of married two-parent households on outcomes like children, and the outcomes in those people’s lives themselves. When two people are married and they have their kids in their home with them, those kids just do better in almost every category— educationally, professionally—later on in their lives. They have fewer run-ins with police and all of these things, and so it really does make a big difference in the lives of children and it does make a big difference in the lives of the people who they are married to. When it comes to the difference between people who are married and those who are cohabiting, those differences show up quite regularly. I mentioned it in the sense of happiness and loneliness, that people who co-habit are closer to singles and not married people in their average levels.
Other research shows that the outcomes for children are also not as consistently high with cohabitating as they are with two married parents. There are different types of cohabiting relationships, right? There are those long-term cohabitators who raised their kids in that household where they’re both engaged in their lives, and in those cases the kids’ outcomes are closer to those with married parents. But in general, they don’t fare as well because there’s something about the marriage commitment which just creates a certain stability that you don’t find elsewhere. And when two people have united themselves in marriage, they’ve created a new family; they’re self-identified as a family. The children are growing up knowing they’re a part of this family and not just two people who brought their lives together. And so psychologically, socially, it just creates a more stable and productive environment, both for the children and for the people who are married.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Dr. Streeter, where can our listeners go to learn more about this topic, and all of these interesting things that you apparently study there in your organization?
DR. RYAN STREETER: Our website is AEI.org. We have a page on our website which puts up all of our survey work and all the related articles that we’ve written about it there. And there’s quite a bit of interesting stuff there.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Dr. Ryan Streeter with the American Enterprise Institute, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.