America’s Loneliness Epidemic: Fact or Fiction?

These days it seems that everywhere we turn we see headlines descrying America’s crisis of connection. However, not all scholars agree that loneliness and social isolation are new or growing problems. It may be that loneliness is just an inevitable part of the human condition. So what do we really know about these phenomena? Are they actually on the rise, or is it all in our heads?

If you’re new to the conversation about America’s loneliness epidemic, hopefully that means you’re not affected by it. But whether or not you’re feeling alone, isolated, or disconnected, someone in your life almost certainly is. Here’s a quick look at what you need to know about what may just be the biggest mental (and physical) health crisis of our generation.

Social isolation is not the same as loneliness

When we think of what it means to be lonely we often picture the proverbial cat lady, or someone huddled in front of the TV all day long with no one to talk to. But this archetype actually represents not loneliness per se, but what sociologists call “social isolation.” A person experiencing social isolation, narrowly defined, lacks a single other person with whom they can discuss “important matters.” Measuring social isolation is therefore a matter of counting the number of close friends or confidants a person has. If the number is zero, that person would be considered by researchers to be experiencing social isolation, which is basically an objective, observable reality.

Loneliness is a state of mind, which makes it harder to measure

On the other hand, loneliness is a subjective reality—it’s an emotional state that can’t really be observed or measured beyond asking people to self-report on their inner life. Loneliness is perceived social isolation—it’s about feelings. A person can feel lonely even while surrounded by other people, which is one of the reasons it’s such a complex problem. Loneliness has been described as the gap between the sense of connectedness we have, and the sense of connectedness we desire. This makes it difficult to measure as a social phenomenon, and especially tricky to track over time. The bottom line is that loneliness is correlated with social isolation, but it isn’t the same thing—and that matters when it comes to determining whether or not these phenomena are in fact on the rise.

Social isolation isn’t necessarily increasing

Determining whether or not a particular social phenomenon is becoming more or less common involves tracking change over time, which typically means asking a representative sample of a given population the same question over and over, at different points in time. In an effort to investigate the average American’s social connectedness, the 1985 the General Social Survey (GSS) began asking respondents about the people with whom they discussed personally important topics on a regular basis, or with whom they had discussed personal matters within a given time frame. Since then, researchers have generally used these or other similar “important matters” survey questions when tracking social isolation. What have they found? Well, it’s not exactly clear. One oft-cited study conducted in 2006 (McPherson et al) found that 22.5% of Americans were socially isolated, which represented a dramatic increase over time and prompted a media frenzy. But this finding is controversial and has never been replicated, despite its continual use in popular media—including in a sweeping article on the subject published last year by Psychology Today. Similar studies put the rate at a much lower 5-12%, which at most represents a modest increase over time. Overall, researchers don’t agree about absolute rates of social isolation, or whether social isolation is increasingly common—the data is just too all over the map to say for certain.

But our circles of close friends are definitely shrinking

Despite disagreement about the state of social isolation in America, what is fairly certain is that the size of Americans’ core discussion networks (what researchers call CDNs) has declined. Multiple studies drawn from various data sets basically agree that in the mid-nineteen eighties the average number of people with whom survey respondents said they regularly discuss “important matters” was about three. Now—just over thirty years later—it’s two. Though most of us aren’t, strictly speaking, isolated, our circle of confidants is definitely shrinking, which may be contributing to widespread feelings of loneliness.

And more people are living alone than ever before

What’s also shrinking is the average American household size, due in significant measure to the sharp rise in “singletons,” or people living alone. In 1950, 22% of American adults were single and four million lived alone, which represented about 9% of all households. Now, over half of all American adults are single, and fully 28% of all American households today are composed of just one person—an almost three-fold increase in just 70 years. This means that though we still have, on average, two confidants we can turn to in times of trouble, more and more frequently those are people on the other end of a phone line or internet connection, rather than someone with whom we are in a committed relationship, or who greets us at the door with open arms. It’s not necessarily true that living alone causes loneliness, but doing so definitely puts the onus on an individual to reach out for connection, and it’s definitely a dramatic change in how we are living and socializing.

At least a quarter of Americans now report feeling lonely a lot of the time

Many different studies have been conducted over the past several decades to determine what portion of Americans are experiencing loneliness on a regular basis. Each uses slightly different survey questions and/or different definitions of loneliness—again, it’s a subjective condition open to interpretation. However, here are a few findings from reliable sources:

  • The late John Cacioppo’s work, documented in his landmark book, Loneliness, estimates that about 26% of Americans are chronically lonely today
  • According to Olga Khazan’s 2017 analysis of the Health and Retirement Study in the United States, the current rate of loneliness is about 27%
  • An online survey conducted on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association in 2016 recorded that 31% of Americans report feeling lonely at least once a week
  • A nationally representative study of adults over 45 conducted in 2010 by the AARP found about one third to be chronically lonely

But we’re not really sure if it’s a bigger problem today than it has been in the past

John Cacioppo’s work asserts that loneliness may have increased as much as 15% in recent decades, and other scholars have made similar claims. But according the Health and Retirement Study in the United States, which has one of the longest subsamples of data recorded over time, the increase is more like 3-7%. Indeed, not all scholars agree that loneliness is more pervasive today than it has been in the past—largely because it’s hard to determine change over time in something that hasn’t been consistently measured in different epochs. Claude S. Fischer is a scholar who denies the idea that loneliness is on the rise, and who also points out that calls to address a “growing” loneliness problem have emerged in almost every decade since the 1950s: The Lonely Crowd (1950), The Pursuit of Loneliness (1970), The Fall of the Public Man (1974), The Me Decade (1976), Habits of the Heart (1981), Bowling Alone (2000), The Lonely American (2008), and The Vanishing Neighbor (2014)—to name a few.

What is different today is that we now recognize the toll loneliness takes on our health

Though the percentage of Americans who report loneliness may or may not have risen sharply in recent decades, what has definitely increased is our understanding of how loneliness affects us. Several studies have shown loneliness to be a root cause of disease: it increases inflammation in the body, depresses immune function, and even alters DNA expression. It’s a predictor for sleep problems, heart disease, and even dementia. And a recent meta-analysis of several different studies found loneliness to be as big a predictor of mortality as smoking or obesity.

The real problem is chronic loneliness

Everyone feels lonely from time to time. This, certainly, is part of being human. Indeed, rates of loneliness have been shown to fluctuate in response to events and circumstances—more people reported feeling lonely right after 9/11, for example. But what isn’t a natural part of the human condition is feeling chronically lonely: having the sense that disconnection defines your experience of the world, and that no matter how times or seasons may change in your life, you find it impossible to share sustained, meaningful connection. Chronic loneliness is also characterized by an aversion to the very activities that might create a sense of connection. It creates a sort of downward spiral, with symptoms similar to—and often even more crippling than—depression.

When it comes to deaths of despair, loneliness is definitely a factor

There’s no doubt about rising rates of suicide in America. On average, the rate of death by suicide in the United States increased by 24% between 1999 and 2014. And deaths by drug overdose have been growing steadily over the past decade, but the rate of increase spiked to an astonishing 16% per year in 2015. Researchers have begun to lump these phenomena together into what they call “deaths of despair,” which is now a fully-recognized public health crisis. And the evidence is mounting that, as common sense would dictate, social disconnection, isolation, and loneliness are contributors to this very real epidemic.

So…what?

While scholarly debates may long endure as to whether Americans are indeed more lonely and socially isolated than we have been in the past, the fact remains that a significant portion of us are unsatisfied with the state of our social connectedness and are longing for more. And this sense of disconnection, which is affecting at least a quarter of the population, is triggering a cascade of negative consequences. This is why loneliness matters as a phenomenon to understand, and a challenge to tackle in ourselves, others, and society at large.

Perhaps, then, the best way to think of loneliness is, as Claude S. Fischer has described it, America’s “endemic epidemic”—something that has always been a large-scale problem in our society, but to which we are only now paying adequate attention. However, as I’ll explore in a later post, we may find that tackling loneliness using tools drawn from our hyperindividualist culture may simply not provide big or innovative enough solutions to truly solve this pervasive problem.

Project Reconnect

If you’re struggling with loneliness or know someone who is, please join me on my year-long journey to reignite a sense of connection, closeness, and belonging in my own life. Each month I take on and write about a different challenge aimed at reviving relationship and creating community. I’d love for you to do the same, and to share your experiences with me as you go. Together, we might just be able to chart a path out of loneliness and despair—for both ourselves and millions of others who feel isolated and alone.

I'm a writer who's spending 2019 engaging in a yearlong personal journey back to community, connection, and relationship. It's called Project Reconnect. Join me!

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