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EXCERPT | Finding Your Third Place

Here is the puzzle. Most of the objective evidence shows that the world is getting better every decade, and not just a little bit better—much better. Life expectancy is going up around the world; extreme poverty is being reduced; air and water quality are improving; diseases are being treated more widely and effectively. Yet people are feeling much worse about their lives and the condition of the world they are living in.

The skeptics will say, “Wait a minute. What about climate change? What about inequality? What about gun violence? What about plastics in the ocean?” But their objections make the point. All those things are genuine causes for concern. They require serious, urgent attention; however, they aren’t significantly more threatening than the crises my parents faced when I was a child.

Crises faced in the past always seem less grave than the ones we face today precisely because they took place in the past. We can see how they have been resolved, but we can’t see into the future. We can’t be sure the things that threaten catastrophe in the next few years will be diverted. But the point is this. Those who lived through the crises of sixty years ago also didn’t know whether the many difficulties facing them could be overcome, but, for some reason, they were not collectively demoralized by the seriousness of the challenges.

I was born in 1962. That is the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis when nuclear holocaust seemed imminent; that is the year Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published, warning that insecticides were destroying bird life all over the planet; that is the year James Meredith, the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi, had to be escorted onto campus by US marshals. In December of 1962, the smog in London was so bad that more than three hundred people died in just four days from breathing the air.

Yet my parents’ generation was not pessimistic about the world into which I was born. On the contrary, they were determined to make things better. They built bomb shelters in their backyards and rallied behind a president who would stand up to Khrushchev’s nuclear intimidation. They banned DDT and established the Environmental Protection Agency. They passed the Civil Rights Act. Most importantly, they did not despair.

Today, many young people are in despair.

Marriage has been declining steadily over the past fifty years; today the marriage rate is about half of what it was in 1972. And the young couples who have decided to make a life together are more reluctant than past generations to bring children into the world.

Loneliness also seems to be increasing, although researchers do not have reliable data going back very far. The world’s largest survey on loneliness, conducted by the BBC in 2018 and involving fifty-five thousand participants, found that one-third of people reported that they often or very often feel lonely. And those numbers are even worse for young people, with 40 percent of those aged between sixteen and twenty- four saying they often or very often feel lonely.

Along with declining emotional well-being for individuals, trust in other people and the institutions upon which we depend has also been falling. In chapter two, we will look more closely at the work of Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, who has documented the decline in social capital and civic engagement since the 1950s.

When Putnam’s book was published in 2000, there was a tendency on the part of many observers to blame the decline of social capital on some development in the recent past: some blamed computers, others television and radio, others blamed the growth of suburban housing and the loss of neighborhoods. Today, many point to more recent developments, such as smartphones and social media. As we will see, there is evidence to suggest that the widespread adoption of these new technologies has caused a great deal of psychological harm, especially among young people who are the earliest and heaviest users of them. But it would be a mis- take to settle on just one specific cause of collective malaise. The truth is, we are feeling worse about our lives because each generation spends less time doing the things that make us feel good about our lives: forming and tending to loving relationships.

This is an excerpt from Rick Kyte's forthcoming book Finding Your Third Place: Building Happier Communities (and Making Great Friends Along the Way)


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