Loneliness Epidemic

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“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

~Attributed to Mother Teresa

A college student, heading to a new school, leaves friends behind. A close relationship is severed by death or breakup. A remote worker loves skipping the commute but misses the convivial workplace. An ostracized teen stares at her social media feeds and feels utterly alone. In such ways, reports U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, about half of Americans—an increasing number—report experiencing loneliness.

With support from Brigham Young University psychologist and social connections researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the Surgeon General documents Americans’ fraying social connections. Between 2003 and 2020,

  • time spent alone increased from 142.5 to 166.5 hours per month;
  • in-person time with friends decreased from 30 to just 10 hours per month.

Consider this: How many close friends do you have? In 1990, 27 percent of Americans answered three or fewer. By 2021, the percentage answering three or fewer increased to 49 percent.

Although COVID-19 accentuated these trends, they are long-term. Aloneness need not entail loneliness. Yet a possible loneliness source is our more often living alone. From 1960 to 2022 single-person households more than doubled—from 13 to 29 percent of all households. We are also more often working alone—with working from home (WFH) reportedly soaring from 5 percent of pre-COVID workdays to nearly 30 percent, and with the WFH trend projected to endure.

The Surgeon General’s concern about social isolation and loneliness stems not just from associated depressed or anxious mood, but also the broader health consequences, which are bigger than you might have guessed:

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Framed positively, we live longer, as well as more happily, when supported by close, caring relationships.

Writing in the Skeptical Inquirer, the late Harriet Hall (aka “SkepDoc”) cautioned that the loneliness-mortality relationship is correlational: “The cause might be some confounding factor.” But modern epidemiological studies do control for some plausible other factors. Moreover, self-reported feelings of “secure attachment” have been in decline. And as the Surgeon General summarizes, social isolation and loneliness are known to impact health via the biology of stress, the psychology of diminished purpose and hope, and related behaviors such as smoking, lack of exercise, and unhealthy nutrition and sleep:

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The report concludes by offering strategies for rebuilding healthy social connections. These include designing physical and social environments that bring people together, and prioritizing cultures that value kindness and connection.

Happily for me, the report’s suggestions are embodied in my historic neighborhood, with its walkable location and sidewalk-facing front porches that (much more than our former backyard-oriented house) connect me with passing neighbors—and not just me, suggests new research on neighborhood design.  Likewise, my department designed our offices to foster faculty connections, by clustering our offices in a pod (rather than yoked with our labs)—with a traffic pattern that has us often walking by one another’s open doors (as I captured below, shortly after writing these words). And we begin each department meeting with a time of sharing personal and professional updates.

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In my experience, the Surgeon General is right: It’s uplifting to live and work, face-to-face, among people who like and support each other.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.) Photo credit Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).