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Home for the Holidays?

Today's post is from Jacqueline Olds, MD, and Richard S. Schwartz, MD, authors of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century. Drs. Olds and Schwartz are both psychoanalysts and Associate Clinical Professors of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Olds teaches child psychiatry and Dr. Schwartz teaches adult psychiatry at the McLean and Massachusetts General Hospitals. Married to each other and with two grown children, they each maintain a private practice in Cambridge, MA. They have written two other books, Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life and Marriage in Motion.

Cover of the Lonely American links to Beacon Press page for book On the front page of the Boston Globe, just beneath the story on surging unemployment, is another headline. "Guess who's not coming to dinner? Amid slump, holiday travel plans stall." The economic crisis threatens to disrupt one of the few moments when we, as Americans, regularly remember that electronic connections can't replace a family meal. Thanksgiving has been the time to emerge from our wired (and wireless) solitude to move real bodies through physical space, over clogged highways and through packed airports to be at the table with our families for the holiday. But even before the economic crisis, it was already tempting not to go.

These days, we can do so much from home – our work, our shopping, our socializing, our game-playing. It's not only convenient; it's also high status. It shows that we have access to all the latest technologies of connection. It shows we are freer than neighbors who are still tied to commutes and schedules. Busyness itself has become high status, an upwardly mobile contest to see who can keep more balls in the air. With so much to do, who has time to run to the store? Or to pack up for the holidays?

We're so used to retreating into our dens of productivity, but even our dens are lonelier. More of us live alone than ever before. Since 1940, one-person households have increased from about 8% to 26% of all households in the country. Even married couples, overwhelmed by the demands of jobs and children, step back from friends and extended family – the now-famous phenomenon of cocooning. We have lost the habit of mixing with the crowd, not only on the road but in the living room and around the dining room table. Even without the downturn in the economy, there were already so many excuses for not making the trip. Especially on the busiest travel days of the year. Traffic is unbearable and planes are worse. It seems so reasonable to decide that it's just too much trouble. We'll visit some other time, when it's easier to get there. No one will mind a little break in the rhythm of holiday togetherness. And besides, holidays are so commercial anyway. Better to see relatives and friends at some more peaceful time of year.

There's a catch, though. If we skip the holidays, we're likely to see less rather than more of friends and relatives at other times of the year. Each step back leaves us feeling just a little less connected and a little less likely to make the increasingly awkward effort to reconnect. And a surprising number of Americans have given up on that effort, despite the explosion of wondrous devices to keep us connected at all times. Over a twenty year period, the number of people who report that they have not discussed a matter of importance to them with anyone over the last six months has gone from 7% to 25%.

The social fabric is not what it used to be. We cannot depend on friends and neighbors to lure us out of our homes when we retreat into them, however wired our homes may be. The more we stay in, the rustier and more uncomfortable we get at the ordinary rhythms of connecting. And feeling left out, however childish it sounds, is no trivial experience. Even in artificial social groups contrived for social psychology experiments, feeling left out has a surprising range of dismal effects, from increased hostility to laziness to lowered IQ scores. Daniel Freeman, an English psychiatrist-researcher, has evidence that too much social isolation can even lead to paranoia.

The longer we avoid those ordinary holiday gatherings, the more anxiety-provoking they become. Missing a year matters. So let's try to find a way to make that incredibly inconvenient trip home for the holidays, even when it seems like too much trouble. We may have a very frayed social fabric in this age of the "electronic dens," but we do not want to rip up what still remains. The face-to-face contact at the holidays is as important as ever for sustaining a sense of family. Economic hard times are no excuse for neglecting family and friends. In fact, hard times can help remind us what really matters.