Our Epidemic of Loneliness

July 11, 2022

How many people are in your life? How many people do you see and speak to almost every day? Perhaps a partner and children, maybe coworkers, maybe friends. Then there are those people who may be in your life but less frequently and at a greater distance, like a barber or a barista. Now ask, are there as many people in your life as there were two years ago? What about 10?

It is no surprise to many adult Americans that social circles tend to shrink throughout our lives. We often find ourselves attending to fewer and fewer people as we commit to family and work while old friends move away or become busier in their own lives. We all have different social needs, but many people have been left feeling lonely, with fewer relationships in their lives than they had hoped.

Definition of Loneliness – What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is the result of social isolation and the feeling of separation from other people, whether from friends or family. It causes further feelings of sadness and desolation. Importantly, loneliness is a very personal feeling as it is the result of perceived social isolation. Meaning a person can feel content with only a few people in their life and conversely a person surrounded by friends and family can still feel quite alone.

For many of us, this shrinking of our social connections has accelerated in the past two years due to the pandemic. Social routines were disrupted, families and friends barely saw each other off-screen, and many people moved cities or changed work. For some of us, the last two years have resulted in a near-total social reset, and we are emerging into a vastly changed and lonelier landscape.

Loneliness, alienation, and isolation have become increasingly commonplace in the 21st century.

Loneliness: A National Warning

Even before the pandemic, the US Surgeon General took what was a radical step for a senior public health official – identifying loneliness as an epidemic. One with serious health consequences.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General under both Presidents Obama and Biden, went so far as to write an entire book on the subject.

Published in 2020, Together identifies loneliness as a plague that reaches all corners of our society.

“The country is experiencing an ‘epidemic of loneliness,’ driven by the accelerated pace of life and the spread of technology into all of our social interactions. With this acceleration,” Murthy writes, “efficiency and convenience have ‘edged out’ the time-consuming messiness of real relationships. The result is a public health crisis on the scale of the opioid epidemic or obesity. In a 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five Americans said they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated.”

And that number may be a conservative estimate. Other studies, like one in 2010 by Hawkley & Cacioppo, report as much as 30% of the United States population experiences chronic loneliness. This is not the kind of loneliness one experiences when weekend plans fall through. It is experienced as a sense that life lacks, perhaps permanently, the social connections we crave.

Humans Are Social

Humans are social creatures: in this simple and obvious fact lies both the problem and the solution to the current loneliness crisis. In his groundbreaking book, Dr. Murthy makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern: a root cause and contributor to many of the epidemics sweeping the world today, from alcohol and drug addiction to violence to depression and anxiety. Loneliness, he argues, is affecting not only our health but also how our children experience school, how we perform in the workplace, and the sense of division and polarization in our society.

How is Loneliness Damaging Your Health?

The Emotional Toll of Loneliness

Because we are social and communal creatures, perceived social isolation feels unsafe. This, in turn, leads to hypervigilance for threats in the environment. Loneliness creates a negative feedback loop: already in a fragile and isolated state, chronically lonely people become much more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Then to cope with negative feelings or the absence of any feelings at all, they are more likely to turn to the numbing or stimulating effects of drugs and alcohol. These degrade physical health, which further contributes to isolation.

The Physical Effects of Loneliness

This negative feedback loop is hypothesized to be a major reason why chronic loneliness predicts the development of physical ailments like heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, and dementia.

The underlying cause of these ailments seems to be a diminished capacity for self-regulation brought on by loneliness, resulting in negative health behaviors like less exercise, more alcohol consumption, and poorer sleep.

An often-cited meta-analysis by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University found that the risk to health of loneliness, isolation, and weak social networks is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The Causes of Loneliness

What makes chronic loneliness so prevalent? There are many factors to consider, but four are particularly important:

  • Work demands leave little time for social engagement

In our increasingly competitive and urbanized economy, more people leave their communities of origin for school or employment, and many childhood connections get lost. Establishing new social networks takes time and effort, and both may be in short supply.

Once we enter the workforce, a job — or multiple jobs — take up most of our waking hours. Time at work, commuting to and from work, and ensuring enough time for proper sleep leave many with little or no recreational time and few opportunities to socialize.

  • Social Isolation begets isolation

As noted above, social isolation makes us feel unsafe, which prompts us to scan our surroundings for signs of danger. Surveillance for social threats produces cognitive biases: lonely individuals see the social world as a more threatening place, expect more negative social interactions, and remember more negative social information.

Negative social expectations tend to elicit behaviors from others that confirm the lonely person’s expectations. For example, others may sense the lonely person’s wariness and keep their distance. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which lonely people and would-be social partners stay away from each other.

Social Isolation means that lonely people have fewer opportunities to practice their social skills and learn new ones. Because they are less interpersonally skilled and anticipate failure, lonely people may instinctively turn away from others, despite desperately wanting connection.

  • Social distrust

These personal fears often extend to society at large. There has been a marked decrease in public trust in recent years. Even ordinary parts of our daily lives remind us of threat. Our phones were meant to be a source of connection, a tool to reach out and catch up with friends and family. Yet, in the last decade, robotic scam calls and telemarketers can make up the majority of the calls we receive. These calls make us distrustful of an unexpected ring and remind us that there are people in the world who want to trick and take from us.

How to Fight Loneliness – A Lifestyle Commitment

Finding and nurturing positive human connections is complicated, but the effort has benefits for both physical health and emotional wellbeing. It begins with paying attention to the small choices we make moment to moment and day to day.

  • Prioritizing relationships

How do we use our free time? There are moments when we may have the choice to work additional hours, or watch TV alone, or reach out to a friend. Small daily choices to connect or not to connect with others can make a big difference. We can actively choose to be socially engaged rather than taking a path of least resistance like reaching for our smartphones to fill unstructured time.

You might have friends over for dinner, you might find a partner for a regular walk after work. You could work in a coffee shop with a friend or invite people over to watch a show together.

Old relationships might be reinvigorated as well in this way. Friends from the past can feel distant but are really just a call away. We know how common the experience of loneliness in the United States is. Old friends are likely to be just as happy to reconnect as you are.

  • Developing and maintaining skills for healthy relationships

Developing and maintaining close relationships is a skill like any other, one that will improve with time and effort. It’s easy to imagine that good relationships just happen to us and that the good ones don’t need to be worked at. This is not the case. Real relationships require effort and attention.

Some key skills to practice:

  • Active listening – hearing not only the words being shared but the feelings behind them. Reflecting on what we hear back in conversation helps others see that we are really paying attention and trying to understand.
  • Cultivate curiosity – developing a love for learning can extend to the people around us. Getting to know others feels like a joy instead of a chore when you become curious about others’ lives, about their particular interests and life experiences.
  • Asking questions (Anything you’re excited about coming up? What’s been a challenge for you recently?). Most people appreciate the chance to talk about themselves.
  • Finding alternatives to the isolationist tendencies in ourselves and in our culture

It is becoming increasingly common to interact with very few people outside of family and work on a given weekday. For example, someone who lives alone drives to work, and does curbside pickup for groceries may see and speak to almost no one during the day. Political polarization can make entire segments of our communities feel distant and loathsome. This has been compounded by many of our COVID practices of social distancing. As we get more accustomed to isolation, social spaces can feel overwhelming or frightening.

It is important to recognize that social discomfort is a natural response to these circumstances. That said, we know how important and powerful human connection is.

Reversing this trend might mean pushing through some of that discomfort to meet new people, signing up to volunteer in your community, and going out of your way to have conversations with people who hold views different from yours.

4. Trying to build and foster community

Finding community goes beyond individual relationships. It is a sense of belonging among many people, and it may involve sharing a hobby, a sport, or a neighborhood. Belonging to a community brings with it important support networks – for example, people who might be able to offer a ride to the mechanic, to babysit, or even an extra ticket to a baseball game.

Finding these kinds of relationships requires small but consistent attention. It means joining a book club at the library, a softball league through work, saying hello when you see your neighbors, and offering a kind word to the workers at your most frequented businesses.

Lifespan Research Foundation

This discussion about loneliness and social isolation is informed by research findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The Harvard Study is currently under the auspices of Massachusetts General Hospital and directed by Dr. Robert Waldinger. It has collected more than eighty years of longitudinal data to understand the factors that enable people to thrive as they go through life.

The Lifespan Research Foundation was founded as an outreach project to bring this research to all who may find it of interest.

We offer materials and resources, including essays like this one, to support people who may be interested in learning more about what makes a good life. We also offer a small group experience, called Roadmaps for Life Transitions, that provides a setting in which people come together to learn about best practices for coping with life challenges and transitions, whether it’s getting a new job, retirement, a child leaving home, or the desire to be less lonely. Our Road Maps program could be a great first step in building your own social skills and community.