The relentless pace of metropolitan life, being tired of crowds, a rigid division of labor, and segregation by social and economic class – these are just some of the causes of voluntary or involuntary solitude in big cities.
Many people choose to remain single due to their individualistic values. Values shape the individual's response to social isolation and can either contribute to the feeling of loneliness or reduce it. Interestingly, individualists living with their family in a big city may suffer from loneliness precisely because of their family status.
These are some of the findings from a study by Christopher Swader, Assistant Professor of the HSE Faculty of Sociology and Senior Research Fellow at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR). He chose Moscow as his primary object for study. Many of Swaden's findings and observations challenge common stereotypes regarding the causes of urban loneliness and its impact on people's wellbeing.
Hiding in one's shell – the image of someone living in a big city has become commonplace. "Call it the stranger effect," says Swader. "Thousands of people flash past us every day; we ignore them, and they ignore us," he continues, stressing the well-known fact that people caught in a crazy urban pace of life are reluctant to spend their time and energy on strangers – and not just on strangers.
"Commuting long distances from home to work leaves people little time for getting together with family and friends who may live on the other side of the city," Swader says. The economics of the city contribute to loneliness by segregating people who work at a different pace and in different environments and therefore develop very different perspectives on life.
The likelihood of being socially isolated in a big city is quite high due to various reasons such as health, age, mental state, economic and social status, and family status. Social isolation is known to contribute to the rise of crime, which is particularly high in big cities, according to statistics.
On the other hand, Swader notes, social isolation does not necessarily lead to feeling lonely. Contemporary sociology challenges the assumption that urban life causes loneliness. An alternative assumption is that cities serve as bastions of freedom and choice, where new forms of social life emerge, reducing loneliness.
Swader uses Russian data from the World Values Survey (WWS) and compares Moscow to small and medium-sized communities to find out whether loneliness is really more prevalent in big cities and what factors contribute to urban loneliness.
If cities are bastions of modern individualistic values, liberating individualists from deep social connections and leaving them free to do whatever they choose with their lives, then values should play a role in determining urban loneliness. This is one of Swader's main hypotheses which is confirmed in the study.
He looked at both individualist and collectivist values. Individualistic values include personal development, pursuing a career, creativity, and self-expression. Collectivist values are associated with being part of a family or another social group and self-identification through membership of such groups.
Urban individualists often choose some form of social isolation to give themselves space to pursue their goals and passions. Many of them, Swader notes, do not feel lonely at all.
"They may have few friends, few close contacts, and no family around, but they may be busy with their work and other things. This is a feature of urban loneliness. People whom we perceive as lonely are in fact not. If you share these 'urban values' then divorce or absence of children may not make you feel miserable," Swader says.
He gives an example of a hypothetical happy solitary urbanite. "He or she may be a programmer who interacts with a small team of coworkers throughout the day. He may only go out once a month yet he does not feel lonely, because work takes up all of his time and because he has specific goals, e.g. to earn a certain amount or move up the career ladder."
Material success is a driver of urban loneliness. People who are primarily concerned about their income may be less focused on family and friendships and more on their own career advancement. Money, he further notes, may lead to superficial friendships as a substitute for real ones. "Someone who is successful and has money may attract fans and followers who are always ready to spend time with them – in fact, such a person can 'buy' certain types of social interaction whenever he or she needs it," says the author of the study.
Solitary urbanites are generally prepared to expand their social circle and make new connections, provided it is worth their time and effort in the light of their more important goals. Most of their contacts are instrumental. "When we talk to a salesperson, we are concerned whether the price and product quality are good. It is unlikely that we take the time to chat with the salesperson just for the sake of social interaction. We do not want to see him as a real person – for us, he is one of many and thus replaceable," explains Swader.
A similar situation occurs when we form 'useful' relationships. "Someone can help us get a job, another person can assist us iun our job, and yet another agrees to find a rental apartment for us. We do not really mind whether or not they have interesting personalities. Genuine social interaction where you enjoy the other's personal qualities does not occur here," the researcher says.
And yet people in big cities tend to attach greater importance to genuine friendships than residents of small and medium-sized communities.
"For many urban dwellers, friendships become even more important than family relationships because we select our own friends for certain characteristics," says Swader. Unfortunately, the popular saying that friends are the family that we choose for ourselves does not work so well in a big city. Surveys suggest that many urban dwellers suffer from a lack of real long-term friendsand resent being used under the guise of friendship. "Today we choose a certain person because we like them, but tomorrow we might change our mind. Add to this the fact that at some point the person may no longer be useful to us or we might become too busy or live too far apart to socialize comfortably, and you can easily understand why urban friendships are so fragile," Swader comments.
The study found that collectivists feel lonely in a big city if they do not have family or close friends – which is understandable. In contrast, individualists, once they marry and have kids, may face loneliness if their family circumstances prevent them from connecting with people they like, making new friends, and pursuing the same interests as before they started a family.
Overall, the study confirms that despite the prevalence of individualistic values in big cities, urban residents on average feel more lonely than people in smaller communities.
Older people are the most likely to feel lonely if some of their friends and family have died and others rarely visit them as they are busy or live far away.
Women tend to be more lonely in big cities than men, since women are more focused on quality social interaction. "In cities such as Moscow, women have less access to well-paid jobs than men. Many urban women are single mums. As a result, women may face various forms of social exclusion," says the researcher.
Another group of people likely to feel lonely are those who struggle with the fast pace of life in Moscow and invest a lot of effort in their education and career but do not fully believe in what they are doing. "These people may want to just settle down, start a family, or enjoy the company of family and friends more often, but cannot afford the time because they have to work," says Swader.
Overall, Moscow is a city of lonely people just like many other big cities worldwide – such as New York. "In both cities, a lot of starry-eyed people aim for success and value useful connections, and in both cities, people often talk about loneliness," he sums up.