My rating: 4 of 5 stars
According to Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the communal working class suburb is an anomaly in a nation increasingly governed by the old Groucho Mark joke, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Putnam argues forcibly and well that the decline in membership in everything from bowling leagues to nonprofits to political parties affects individual and societal sense of well being.
In other words, we don’t really care if we make more money and are not at war, if we bowl alone.
Putnam uses a variety of sources, including Roper Social and Political Trends and the DDB Needham Life Style, Gallup polls, crime statistics, newspapers, and anecdotal evidence (e.g., the end of hitchhiking, letters between club members) to detail American’s social and civic patterns over the past century. His work outlines the growing decline in memberships in formal organizations (political parties, sports leagues, PTA, YMCA, church) and informal communities (local bars, dinner with friends, card games). Most significantly, he provides evidence of the importance of social connections to individual and community wellness.
If we’re a nation of lonelyhearts and losers who don’t have friends over, don’t join teams, and don’t vote, according to Putnam, we all lose out. In areas of high social capital, like my friend Michael’s neighborhood, and particularly in states like Vermont, Minnesota, and Montana (see Rick Stern’s Letter from Missoula if it surprises you that Montana’s up there), children are healthier and watch less TV, there’s less crime, people are less likely to cheat on their taxes, schools function better, and levels of educational attainment increase. Folks also complain less of their health, make more money, and their kids will make more money. On the other hand, if you’re in a region of low social capital, say Nevada or Alabama, you’re more likely to say that you’d do better than average in a fistfight.
Putnam writes that “regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income.” And only participating once a month (you don’t need to become Reese Witherspoon’s ultra-go-getter character in “Election”) will make you less likely to likely to state, “I wish I could leave my present life and do something entirely different,” and more likely to believe, “I am much happier now than I ever was before.” Not only is membership associated with general feelings of happiness, but also there is a strong connection to health. Putnam describes a number of longitudinal studies that suggest this “rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining. These findings are in some ways heartening: it’s easier to join a group than to lose weight, exercise regularly, or quit smoking.”
According to a number of surveys cited in the book, my generation has lived up to its slacker name: we don’t vote, work on community projects, attend church, or interest ourselves in politics; we’re proportionately more depressed and suffer more from insomnia, headaches, and indigestion than older generations; and, unlike our grandparents, most of us don’t believe people can be trusted. We are, however, slightly less greedy than the generation “y” coming after us.
The weakest section of Putnam’s book is his description of the reasons for the decline in participation, related to our general malaise. This section, composed in a stylistically awkward murder mystery tone in which he lines up possible suspects, lacks the conviction of other chapters. At the end, he produces only “guesstimates” in which he apportions blame without any real data to support his figures. His best “guess” is that pressures of dual-income families are the cause of 10% of the decline; suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl account for another 10%; television is responsible for about 25%; and generational differences explain about 50%. In other words, in apportioning culpability he argues that my generation is largely to blame; but, of course, we didn’t invent the televisions, build the highways, or arrange the tiny boxes of suburban sprawl, so it’s rather a circular argument.
Putnam also takes on an evangelical tone near the end of the book that may cause some readers to cringe: “Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens.” And in another passage he writes, “Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume or ‘appreciate’) cultural activities from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals.”
Despite some of these problems, Putnam’s argument is a strong one. His original essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” published a few years back in the somewhat obscure Journal of Democracy, received much attention from the mainstream media. How many professors and their wives make it to the cover of People magazine? And the book, with its generally solid arguments and fascinating data, should become common reading, since it addresses issues fundamental to retaining a civic society (like voting, public education) and to promoting a healthy and wealthy one. And it may serve as a wake-up call: it’s not too late to stop bowling alone and to start meeting your neighbors, have dinner parties, and live longer and healthier lives.
Plus, who can resist a book with graphs like the one charting the likelihood of a person giving another driver the finger, based on the number of hours a week the person watches television?