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Singles Scene News
PO Box 10159
Scottsdale AZ 85271

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AZ Single Scene

The Decline of Social Life in America
and What You Can Do to Help Yours

by Jeff Jacobsen

"In 1977, the Detroit Free Press was able to find only 5 out of 120 families willing to give up television for a month in return for $500. People who do give up TV reportedly experience bore-dom, anxiety, irritation, and depression. One woman observed, 'It was terrible. We did nothing - my husband and I talked.'" [Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam, p. 240]

American society has had a great change in its social acuity. Have you noticed it? Since the early 1960's, Americans have become less social in many areas. Membership in a group now means sending in your dues rather than attending their meetings. What used to be accomplished with a
handshake now requires at least two attorneys. Nobody sits and greets each other from their porch anymore, if they even
have a porch. The local mom and pop store that used to know your name and preferences is now the Big Box store with headquarters who-knows-where. Half as many people belong to church groups. Between the mid-1970's and today, the number of times people entertain friends at home has been halved. And "the frequency with which Americans, both married and single, went out to bars, nightclubs, discos, taverns, and the like declined by about 40-50 percent over the last decade or two." [Bowling Alone, p. 101]

Our social life is important. Humans are social animals. "The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections." [Bowling Alone, page 332]

Why have we become less social? When we live in the suburbs and work downtown, commute time can take over an hour a day that we're stuck in our metal box of a car, cut off from other humans unless you happen to hit one. Our job is not like our parents' where we are assured a job until we retire;
instead we are com-peting to keep our job, or acclimatizing to our new employer. When we get home we drive into our garage with the remote control, close the door, and walk into our house without ever seeing a neighbor. When we sit down to relax on the sofa we turn on the TV and watch for a few hours, speaking little to our family or housemate.

There are many contributing factors to this decline in our social fabric. Inventions such as the telephone have lessened the need for direct personal contact. Air conditioning means it's nicer indoors than out in the breeze on the porch when your neighbor is most likely out on his or her porch as well. Cars are not like bicycles or horses where we could actually say hello to one another as we pass. Architecture of homes and apartments is designed to whisk us indoors, not create places of conversation with our neighbors. City planners place our homes and work far apart, requiring commuting time that
eats at socializing time. I recently drove through Sun City West and viewed the high continuous walls on either side of the main road. There are sidewalks along these walls, but I would dare say that by the time you started walking into the town and got to an actual break in this wall, you would be sunburned and very thirsty. This shows that city planners think only of the needs of people in their cars or homes; sidewalks are simply remnants from older planning days.

Mistrust hurts social life. When you have stealing Enrons, lying
presidents, identity thieves, and other modern attacks on our trust, it makes it harder to assume that it's safe to be a friendly person. Television, however, is the big culprit. The average American watches 4 hours of TV per day, consuming 40 percent of his or her free time. This is time lost to social activities. "A quiet evening at home" is now a euphemism
for watching TV. TV watching has even moved out of the house, with TVs in restaurants, bars, even our cars. TV is the biggest social time-sucker there is.

Do you wish you had a better social life? Do you wish American society could gain back its social interaction? There are things you can do:

1) Turn off your TV! Try it. See how much more free time you have gained.
Use the time you save for social activities.
2) Read the newspaper. Keep abreast of what's going on in your world and community. Be an informed conversationalist.
3) Join a singles group or other social club.
4) Move to a small town where people get acquainted more easily.
5) Participate in politics: vote, meet the candidates, discuss local issues.
6) Build your circle of friends to more than three (the average person has just three close friends).
7) Learn how to trust people but still be cautious. It may be good to take courses in related subjects.
8) Live as close to work as possible. Time saved can be used as social time. Meanwhile, carpool or take the bus; talk to your fellow passengers.
9) Join a church/synagogue/mosque. Participate.
10) Have a social gathering in your home at least once a month.
11) Get to know your neighbors.
12) Choose your home or apart-ment based on its social value. Are there porches? Does your walkway take you past your neighbors? Can you walk to the grocery store? Is it an easy place for social contact?
13) Go to school. Besides socializing at school, you are learning more and thus will have more to discuss, and "education is one of the most powerful predictors of virtually all forms of altruistic behavior" [Bowling Alone, page 118].

* * * * * * * * * *

How's your "social capital"?

Here are the very unscientific results of the Social Capital survey conducted through our newspapers and websites.

1. Do you watch TV less than 4 hours per week? Yes - 16 No - 21

2. Do you get your news mostly from newspapers? Yes - 12 No - 24

3. Do you attend regular meetings of 2 or more (non job-related) groups? Yes - 12 No - 25

4. Do you live in a smaller town (less than 50,000)? Yes - 11 No - 26

5. Do you vote regularly? Yes - 25 No - 12

6. Do you have more than 3 close friends? Yes - 20 No - 17

7. Do you tend to trust people rather than think that you just can't be too careful? Yes -20 No - 17

8. Is your round trip commute time less than 30 minutes per day? Yes - 22 No - 15

9. Do you belong to a church/synagogue/mosque? Yes - 14 No - 23

10. Have you had a social gathering in your home in the last month? Yes - 12 No - 25

11. Do you know the first names of your direct neighbors? Yes - 28 No - 9

12. Have you written a letter to the editor or a letter to a public
representative in the last year? Yes - 12 No - 25

* * * * * * * * * * * *

What's your social capital?
Your survey results

by Janet Jacobsen

Thirty-seven singles responded to our "Social Capital" questionnaire which appeared in the March issue. (See the sidebar for details.) The survey was modelled directly from key points in the book Bowling Alone, to see if singles today live the isolated lives that author Robert Putnam suggests.
The first thing that becomes apparent from the survey results is that no particular item was true of all singles. The highest agreement was with question 11: 76% of us know the first names of our direct neighbors. But that means, of course, that about a quarter of singles do NOT know their neighbors. Diversity then increased to almost half and half on questions 6
and 7: 54% of us have more than three close friends, and 54% of us tend to be trusting of others.

Looking at the issue of social capital - the degree to which we are, or are not, involved and interacting with other people in America today - our respondents did skew slightly toward the "alone" side, with the majority choosing the less-social response for 7 of the 12 questions (as framed by Putnam). Of the 5 questions where the majority leaned to the more social
side, two where the questions mentioned above that had just 54% agreement.

The other questions where our respondents were more social than Putnam predicted were 5. Do you vote regularly? (68% yes), 8. Is your round trip commute time less than 30 minutes per day (59% yes), and 11-as mentioned, 76% of us know our direct neighbors by first names.

So it would appear that as a group, our respondents are in fact low on "social capital" as Putnam describes it. And keep in mind that the people answering our survey are singles who are active and involved enough to be reading singles publications and singles websites. They may be likely to
have more social contact than singles who don't seek out singles information. The fact that our question 1 found that 43% of our respondents watch far below the typical amount of television further suggests that this is not your "typical" group of folks. Yet overall the social involvement was low.

Many of these activities we control directly: whether we know our neighbors, how often we participate in groups or invite people over, to name a few. The results of our Social Capital questionnaire suggest that all of us could be doing more to strengthen our social lives, which in turn will strengthen our communities. Having a strong social circle makes life more
fun, and even improves your health. Pick just one area to work on, and get started building your social capital today.

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