What to Do About the Loneliness Epidemic

Humans, Aristotle observed, are “political animals,” while Genesis reminds us that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). We must receive many of the conditions for our survival as a gift from others: No one chooses his mother tongue, or parents (or other caregivers), from whom he receives it in infancy. One result of this profoundly communal way of being is that we long for connection and belonging, to love and be loved. 

We value loving relationships in themselves, of course, but our social networks also have profound effects on all aspects of our lives, including our mental and even physical health. Robert Waldinger, who directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development — a longitudinal study of 268 men and their spouses and children which is now nearing its 80th year — has emphasized that, in their sample, “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Social connection shapes mental and physical health both through its objective dimensions — the number of relationships and communities in which we’re embedded, the time we spend with and in them, and the material support they offer — and the subjective sense of connection and belonging, of being loved and cared for, we derive from them. To lack the objective goods of social connection is to be isolated, and to lack its subjective goods is to be lonely. While these two tend to be correlated, they can come apart: You can be lonely in a crowd, or perfectly content in splendid isolation. 

Loneliness, Isolation, and Flourishing 

A 2015 meta-analysis of rigorous studies indicated that both the objective and the subjective sides of social connection are important for health: Those with higher levels of social isolation or with higher levels of loneliness are at greater risk of early death. In a recent paper examining data on 13,752 older adults, our team at the Human Flourishing Program explored how these objective and subjective sides of social connectedness affected not only mortality but also a host of other health and well-being outcomes over a period of four years. As in prior research, we found evidence for important effects of both loneliness and social isolation on numerous health and well-being outcomes including mortality risk, physical functioning limitations, happiness and life satisfaction, optimism, purpose in life, depression, and hope. 

One innovative feature of this study, however, was to explore how loneliness and isolation affect flourishing individually as well as in combination. We found that isolation (like living alone, not spending time with friends and family, not being involved in communal gatherings, etc.), had larger effects than loneliness on physical health outcomes, such as mortality risk and physical-functioning limitations. On the other hand, loneliness had larger effects than isolation on a number of mental-health and well-being outcomes (such as happiness, optimism, purpose in life, sense of mastery, depression, and hope). 

The stronger effect of isolation on physical health might be partly because isolation may not only contribute to poor health but also aggravate the lethality of conditions such as heart disease or limited mobility. Someone living alone has no one to call an ambulance when he feels tightness in his chest, or to simply lend him a hand if he feels unsteady. “Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up,” Ecclesiastes 4:10 says. As such, he might thus be at greater risk of injury from a fall, or of death from a sudden heart attack. On the other hand, what matters most for our mental health and subjective well-being isn’t just the objective character of our social network, but the subjective satisfaction and meaning we find in them. Thus, while the objective and the subjective side of social connection both matter for flourishing, they do so in different ways. 

An Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation

Unfortunately, however, many aspects of social connectedness are in long-term and accelerating decline in the United States. Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General released a public health advisory on “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” which notes that from 2003 to 2020, the average American’s self-reported time spent with friends and in social engagement with others decreased by two-thirds and one-third, respectively, while time spent in social isolation increased by 17 percent. By some measures, half of Americans now report being lonely. As we have observed in Common Good, marriage and birth rates are at all-time lows and religious affiliation and participation are collapsing, as are other forms of civic participation. This is cause for lament in itself, of course, but also represents a significant public-health crisis. We need to work towards addressing these declines and reconnecting our communities.

Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has its origins in a cocktail of cultural, social, economic, and technological causes. In previous articles, we have discussed key drivers of particular trends, such as the way that economic stagnation among less educated men drives down marriage rates or the way in which long-term cultural changes combine with “secular competition” to depress religious participation. Addressing contemporary loneliness and isolation will likely require reviving both marriage and religious communities, but two other dimensions of the loneliness epidemic deserve special consideration here, namely the impact of smartphones on young people, and of living alone on the elderly. 

As the surgeon general noted in his advisory, adolescents and young adults are the loneliest demographic in America today; unsurprisingly, their mental health — as measured in diagnosed depression and anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts — is also the country’s worst. There is now an increasingly rigorous evidence base, developed not least by Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, linking these trends to young people’s use — or abuse, rather — of smartphones, which increasingly substitute interactions on social-media platforms for more life-giving, flesh-and-blood socialization. For instance, Twenge and her co-authors found that, across 37 countries, greater smartphone use was associated with higher rates of self-reported loneliness at school. Young people who are absorbed in their phones might still be in the presence of others throughout the day, but they are more and more merely “alone together.” 

Younger Americans are particularly lonely, but older Americans are our most socially isolated demographic, with those 65 and older spending 1,405 more hours per year in social isolation than 25–34 year olds. To a certain extent, this isn’t surprising: The older you are, the more likely you will have lost a spouse to divorce or death, to have retired from a job with its built-in community, or to have your social engagements limited by frailty or disability. 

However, another important cause of elderly isolation is distinctively Western, namely the fact that 27 percent of Americans 65 and older live alone, compared to four percent of Americans aged 18–24 or 8.5 percent of those aged 25–44, and compared with only 11 percent of the elderly in the Asia-Pacific region, or nine percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, in 2020, only six percent of all Americans over 60 lived in “extended family households,” including three or more generations, whereas 50 percent of the elderly in the Asia-Pacific region and Sub-Saharan Africa did so. 

Reconnecting Our Communities

Ending the current crisis of loneliness and isolation will require addressing its individual drivers. The lowest-hanging fruit in this regard is probably young people and smartphones. To begin, schools could clearly and consistently ban their use on campus. The Ministry of Education in the U.K, recently directed every school in the country to “prohibit the use of mobile phones throughout the school day, including at break times.” If U.S. school districts, states, and even the federal Department of Education followed suit, the resulting daily detox period from phone use would likely improve many aspects of students’ flourishing, including their sense of social connection, mental health, and, likely, school performance as well. (Scores on the Program for International Student Assessment math and reading tests have been declining since 2009 and 2012, respectively, roughly the same period in which adolescent mental health began to collapse.) 

As we noted above, the isolation of the elderly is more of a natural consequence of their life stage than is the loneliness of young people today, and so we might expect it to be more challenging to alleviate. Still, the high rates at which older Americans live alone is an outlier, not only historically but also in comparison with African and Asian countries today. This trend is arguably less amenable to policy intervention than adolescent smartphone use, flowing as it seems to, at least in part, Americans’ culture of “expressive individualism” or commitment to individual autonomy, a conviction doubtless shared by many older adults as well as by their children. Ending the isolation of the elderly will require many older parents and their adult children to accept the real daily sacrifices and loss of agency which can come from living together.

Emerging from our epidemic of loneliness and isolation will require not only individual changes in how we relate to one another (and to our devices), but collective changes in how we order our common life. This will include policy changes, notably to how young people relate to digital technologies, particularly at school. But, perhaps most importantly, it will require a cultural and even spiritual transformation, one in which community and common goods are restored to the centrality they have enjoyed in virtually all human cultures, and which we have eroded for decades, to our peril.

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