Why We’re Lonelier Than Ever (and Why Marriage is Falling Apart), According to Kurt Vonnegut


How many people do you interact with on a daily basis? Not online, or in your email inbox, but in real life?

What about during the week? I had to do a quick tally — (ten coworkers, my husband, a few close friends I see regularly, an occasional dinner or evening out), — maybe twenty to thirty people?

We live in extended networks of people, from families to churches to schools to organizations that we belong to. But how many of them do we actually SEE and interact with face to face in a given week

Kurt Vonnegut, an American writer and humorist, and author of 14 books, published a collection of graduation speeches he’s given in the book, “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?”. In it, he covers in hilarious detail the simplicity of being human, the conundrum of being nice (“be more like Jesus,” he says, regardless of whether or not you think he’s God), and why we’re all suffering from loneliness.

It was so simple, yet so profound:

“Only two major subjects remain to be covered: loneliness and boredom. No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives. We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.”

Do you have fifty people?

He goes on to talk about marriage, and why marriage isn’t falling apart because marriage is wrong, but because our families are too small.

“Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.”

So, he recommends, “everybody here [should] join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. If does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.”

In a second speech, he goes on to elaborate on knowing the secrets to what women and men want. It’s remarkably similar to his story above:

“I know what women want. Women want a whole lot of people to talk to. And what do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.”

And men?

“Men want a lot of pals.”

I don’t fully agree with the simplicity of men and women being entirely different (nor do I believe that marriage is just about a man and a woman) — but the underlying point rings true: men and women want people to hang out with and talk to.

And the cause of fights in marriage? It turns out “what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness.”

“What they’re really saying is, ‘You’re not enough people.’”

We are born into our immediate families. It’s up to us to reach out, meet as many people as possible, and build our extended families.

Do you have fifty people?

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6 Responses to Why We’re Lonelier Than Ever (and Why Marriage is Falling Apart), According to Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Gerard says:

    Great piece, Sarah.

    I notice a connection between this and your writing on meditation.

    Being social and practicing meditation are simple steps to happiness, yet both are so challenging to maintain at times.

    While technology has the potential to make people antisocial, an intentional use of it can help us foster in person social connections.

    Thanks for sharing great stuff.

  2. Sarah,
    This could not have arrived at a better time. I’ve realized recently that I am lonely, have been lonely, yet didn’t have a name or identity for that feeling. (I have nowhere near 50, or even 30 people in my life on a daily, IRL kinda way).
    In a relatively short amount of time (a few generations) we have stripped ourselves of so many collective, communal activities–gathering in playgrounds (for kids and moms, and a smattering of dads); shared family responsibilities (which now are mostly devolved to individual nuclear units, instead of spread over aunties, grandads, second- and third cousins); PTA and Boy and Girl Scout participation (for most parents, has been erased by growing work demands–the other side of the always-available employee).
    The causes and repercussions are certainly inclusive of, yet far beyond individual choices, and yet–for our health, the health of our families and communities–it’s up to each of us to wrassle up the time and energy to step find, create and participate in creating or joining communities. (In fact, one of the benefits of being in a 12-step community is the network across the world of folks who are welcoming even if they don’t know you. It was only after I left those rooms–for some additional growth–that I realized how “easy” community-building was “in the rooms”.)
    My next step is trying out a shape singing group that meets a couple of times a month. The step is pretty low risk: you show up, sit down among others, and try and sing.
    Oh my–I have gone on for a bit. I thank you again for your post.
    My best to you,

  3. Lynx says:

    great article! I was just thinking about this very subject of needing more people today after coming back from a birthday gathering of a very large group of tight nit friends and family of the birthday person!

    Love that you note this “I don’t fully agree with the simplicity of men and women being entirely different (nor do I believe that marriage is just about a man and a woman) — but the underlying point rings true: men and women want people to hang out with and talk to.”

    • Sarah says:

      Yes! I liked the sentiment, but wanted to update the language to reflect the fact that over-simplifying what love, marriage, sex, and gender are isn’t always helpful. This applies to every human.

  4. Adam says:

    Great post, Sarah! I’ve enjoyed seeing you write more again and hope you keep sharing your new insights and reflections. I think the connection between loneliness and showing kindness to other people is something worth exploring more–in my own life, I’ve noticed that serving others often brings people closer together than other social events or activities. Maybe that’s why service groups and non-profits have continued to grow despite all the other things (like social media) that compete for our time.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks Adam! I took a break for a while and it’s good to be back to publishing regularly. I agree — getting out and serving others is a great way to find connection again.