- All the lonely people – the epidemic of loneliness and its consequences - November 18, 2019
As we walk the streets of our cities and pass by a stranger heading in the opposite direction, we often avert our eyes, turn slightly to the side, glance down, or pull out our phones and pretend we’ve just received an important message, so that we don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of not wanting to acknowledge the other person with a smile or even a glance, yet still feeling awkward and subconsciously guilty for ignoring them. If you do accidentally make eye contact with a stranger, you instantly look away and they do as well, both of you made horribly uncomfortable by that brief – and certainly unintentional – acknowledgement of the other human being.
If while you were riding the S-Bahn this morning, someone were to sit down next to you and ask how you are doing today, or where you’re headed on this fine Sunday morning, comment on how nice the weather’s been lately, or even compliment your ring, you would probably be more uncomfortable than pleased. You’d probably ask yourself what in the world is motivating them to talk to you, a perfect stranger. Are they going to ask me for money, try to scam me, steal from me, flirt with me, are they mentally ill, drunk, are they from some other planet where this is normal? In most Western countries in 2019, casual interactions – and almost any interaction – between strangers has become something to be avoided at all costs. Even if you do have to look in the general direction of someone, you stare straight past them, making sure you do not look directly at them and certainly do not make the dreaded eye contact – as they do for so many things, Germans have a succinct phrase to very accurately describe this feeling: “wie Luft behandeln:” the closest English translation is “to be looked at as though air.”
Overview of Analysis
In this text, an analysis will be conducted of the epidemic of loneliness, which is reaching critical levels in countries throughout the world and still continues to rise. This analysis will present the overall scale of the issue, broken down by the prevalence of loneliness in sample countries, point out who is most likely to be affected, establish some of the causes of this epidemic, demonstrate the impact of widespread loneliness, and, finally, discuss the types of solutions that could be provided by governments, private society, and on an individual level to combat this systemic issue.
How big is the problem?
In Europe, 18% of the population is considered to be “socially isolated,” reporting that they socialize with friends or family just once a month at most, and 7% say they feel frequently lonely. These are averages, though, and the regional divide is strong; in Western and Northern Europe, loneliness rates are as low as 3% in some countries, while in some countries in Southern and Eastern Europe, nearly 40% of people are classified as socially isolated and 10% say they feel frequently lonely. Loneliness is markedly worse among people who are over 60 years old; every European country reports that at least 10% of people in this age group are frequently lonely.
Unsurprisingly, large-scale studies regarding the prevalence of loneliness in Africa, South America, and Asia are more rare than in the Western World. One study in South Africa showed that average rates of loneliness were 10% and highest among the elderly. In China, research has focused solely on loneliness among the elderly and found that just 7% reported feeling lonely often. In Japan, which is famous for its extreme social recluses known as hikikomori, 10% of people reported feeling often or always lonely.
By far the most research on this subject has been conducted in the large (population of 25 million or higher) English speaking countries like Canada, Australia, America, and the UK, and they are the loneliest by far; nationally representative surveys show that 20-28% of people in each of these countries feel frequently lonely, compared to just 3-10% in China, Japan, South Africa, and even the loneliest countries of Europe. Australians fare the worst, with 28% reporting feeling frequently lonely, which is defined as feeling lonely three or more days per week. In the UK, 23% of people are frequently lonely and Americans follow close behind at 22%. Canada is the least lonely of the large English-speaking countries, but still reports comparable loneliness rates of 20%. However, cross-cultural studies are inherently troublesome to interpret, as the connotations attached to loneliness can vary between cultures, the phrasing of questions can be interpreted differently by different populations, and, perhaps most importantly, the openness with which people will be willing to talk about a deeply personal and potentially embarrassing subject such as loneliness will be impacted by the cultural norms of their home country. Each of these studies were conducted anonymously, of course, but in countries with a highly communal culture and where reputation among the community is deeply important, such as in most of Asia, people might still be more reluctant to admit their true feelings.
Who is most likely to be affected?
Women are more likely to report being lonely than men by any measure and, significantly, 56% less likely than men to report never being lonely. This disparity could be partly due to men being less willing to admit feelings of loneliness – either on a survey or to themselves – than women are, due to traditional gender roles which are typically less tolerant of men showing perceived weaknesses and a desire for emotional closeness.
Unemployed Americans were 54% more likely to frequently be lonely than those who were employed. In Europe, the unemployed were also more likely to be frequently lonely, but only by 7%. This is an indicator that more of the social connections made by Americans are developed through their work, so when they lose or leave their job, they are more likely to become lonely than a European in the same situation who has created more meaningful social connections outside of work.
The discussion around the prevalence of loneliness focuses heavily on older people, typically defined as those over 65 years old, and in most regions studied, this age demographic is indeed the loneliest of all. This disproportionate loneliness of older populations is especially pronounced in Europe, and holds true for each of its regions, from North to South and East to West. However, in the large English speaking countries, the age demographics of loneliness are not just different but entirely reversed. In Australia, America, and the UK (no data available for Canadians by age), people older than 65 are the least lonely, and people aged 25 or younger were the most lonely.
What is causing this?
Studies to determine household sizes were first conducted in Europe in the 1600s and became common in the 1800s. Prior to 1960, the percentage of people living alone rarely rose above 10% in any city anywhere in the world that was surveyed. In the past 60 years, however, the number of single person households has skyrocketed, so now in cities such as Stockholm, 60% of adults live alone and in Berlin, it’s nearly half. This is partly due to urbanization: as young people leave family homes in more rural areas and move to cities for better economic and social opportunities, the historical tradition of multi-generational homes has declined. Living alone has also become a way to signal wealth and status, a way of proving that you earn enough money to have a one bedroom apartment instead of having to share with roommates or still live with your parents after you turn 18. Thus, many people come home from work to an empty house, with no one to greet at the end of the day, no one to tell about their day, and no one spend the evenings at home with playing board games or drinking wine. Even if you have friends living in the area, it’s much easier to get together with your roommates in the kitchen than it is so gather friends from all over town to meet at a pub; it’s more convenient to spend time with your significant other if you live together than it is to drive or take the train to their house across town; it’s much easier to ask for your mom’s advice on something if she’s right downstairs than it is to take a trip home for the weekend when your parents live in another city. So even though you may have lots of friends or be in a relationship or have close family ties, it’s harder to maintain them and spend time with your loved ones when they are not just in the next room. Thus, unsurprisingly, people who live with others are 43% more likely to say they never feel lonely.
Social media was ostensibly created to provide sources of connection, support, and enhanced relationships for people all over the world, but ironically appears to be having the opposite effect on many. Among Americans aged 19-32, the quartile using social media most often was found to be more than twice as lonely as the quartile using it least. As with many things though, the way in which a person chooses to use social media will of course have a great impact on how it affects their mentality; those who use it to actively engage with family and friends or join supportive virtual groups of like-minded people will be more likely to see an improvement in mental health outcomes than those who use social media mainly to read the news or passively follow wealthy celebrities and influencers who live lives of outsized glamor.
Another major cause of widespread loneliness is an overwhelming decrease in civic and social engagement across the board. America provides heaps of data and a striking example of how a country can go from holding a reputation for being inordinately civic and establishing associations for every human interest and desire under the sun to being one of the loneliest countries on Earth. In its early days, America functioned like a modern day University Club Fair, offering organizations for every niche interest and activity for everything from cross-stitching to political debate parties to folk music and encouraging people to join every association that piqued their interested. But this mentality has undergone a swift change, with general participation in activities such as these beginning to decline in the 1960s and decreasing ever since. The single biggest explanation for this decline is likely the rapid increase of women entering the workforce, which began in the 1960s and has only increased since. Women often designed their households’ “social calendars,” performed the majority of household duties like cooking and cleaning, and were responsible for childcare. When women entered the workforce and began spending every day at work, they of course had far less free time, so optional social activities for themselves and their families began to fall by the wayside to make time for still necessary things like childcare and household duties. Increasing individualization has also played a role, as people choose to spend more of their free time on activities which don’t require other participants: going running instead of playing team soccer, starting their own backyard garden instead of renting a plot in a community garden, or watching Netflix at home instead of going to the drive-in or movie theater.
Membership in the Parent-Teacher Association has declined by half since the mid 1950s, and so has membership in labor unions, which were once hugely popular associations providing both economic and social benefits, especially for blue collar workers. Since the 1970s, participation in service and fraternal organizations such as The Lion’s Club have decreased from 12-44% depending on the organization. Volunteer organizations show the same trend, even a hugely popular association like the Red Cross has experienced a 61% decrease in membership since 1970. America has long held a reputation as being far more religious than nearly any other highly developed country in the world, but even that has begun to change as the number of people who claim to go to church weekly is declining, especially among young people, and many still say they belong to a certain kind of faith but participate more passively through donations and social media campaigns rather than regularly attending services and church social activities. From 1973 to 1993, Americans who said that in the last year they have attended a public meeting on town or school affairs, went to a political rally or speech, served on a local committee, or did work for a political party all declined by at least one third. Concerningly, 75% of Americans say they trust the national government almost never or only some of the time, and in 1966 that number was only 30%. And perhaps most worryingly for democratic participation, voter turnout in America has declined by 25% since the 1960s.
It is tempting to think that Americans are participating less in civic organizations than they did in 1960 not by choice, but by necessity: that they simply don’t have the time to participate in optional social activities like they did in 1960, because today they are forced to work more hours to earn enough money to survive. However, the idea that we’re working more hours today than we did in 1960 is not supported by data; the average amount of hours worked in a year has declined by 10% in America since the 1970s. In 1980, men with the highest earnings worked fewer hours each week than any other men, but in 2005, the richest 10% of married men had the longest work weeks of anyone. Over this same period of time, college educated men, who have higher earnings than college educated women and anyone without a degree, reduced the amount of time that they spent doing leisure activities more than any other group – clearly, the richest men have begun voluntary trading leisure time for more work; even though they have the economic freedom to spend less time earning money and more time joining civic organizations, volunteering, socializing with their friends, or spending time with their children, they increasingly choose not to.
If Americans simply loved their work and were sincerely happy to devote most of their lives to it instead of spending time on other activities of their own choosing, then their willingness to work more even when it has become economically unnecessary would be understandable. Unfortunately, however, a sobering 87% of Americans report not being engaged with their work, so this isn’t a solid explanation for the vast majority of people. Instead, for many, it seems that work provides a consistent and reliable source of distraction from other things that one has less control over, such as getting married or having a group of supportive friends who you really connect with. If you choose to focus your free time and energy on advancing your career, you are almost guaranteed some measure of success – you will at some point be promoted, earn a higher salary, and end up with a fancier title. But if you spend your free time and energy on finding a compatible romantic partner or building a friend group or resolving your issues with your parents, there is no guarantee you will be successful, because you cannot control another person’s actions, and there is always the chance that things will end in divorce, humiliation, or heartbreak, so the relative predictability of setting a goal at work then simply putting in the time and effort to achieve it can be considered a much safer option. Additionally, social trust and social participation are strongly correlated, not only in America, but in 35 countries that have been surveyed regarding the link. In 1960, 58% of Americans agreed that most people could be trusted; by the 1990s, that number had fallen to just 37%. Being married or having children is also correlated with higher civil engagement, and in most countries in the world, people are marrying and having children later and overall are less likely to get married or have children at all.
Working long and hard also allows a person to achieve a kind of social status through their participation in “hustle culture,” which they advertise on Instagram as pictures of their carefully arranged office desk and open laptop at 2am, jokes about how much coffee they have to drink to make it through the day, networking events, not having time to go out because they are too focused on work, and bragging about lack of sleep. Of course, work also provides money, which is obviously a powerful incentive and yet another way to cultivate a higher social status through the prominent display of material goods such as cars, a big house, fancy clothes, and jewelry both on social media and in real life; in many ways, we have traded our time and emotional energy for the never-ending accumulation of unnecessary material goods in hopes of using them to impress other. Even people who are already among the richest 10% of people in the entire world, and could buy anything within reason, are choosing to sacrifice much of the free time that they could be spending with their loved ones or even just enjoying the things that they’ve already bought and instead using that time to work even more.
Fascinatingly, in the same period that average hours worked per year declined by 10% in America, it declined by as much as 40% in countries in mainland Europe, such as Germany and the Netherlands. It seems that when it became economically feasible for everyone to work less, Europeans chose to do so, while the richest and most educated Americans chose to start working even more. As has been discussed, Europeans are 15 percentage points less likely to be lonely than Americans are, have lower rates of mental illness, and there are 15 European countries with a higher quality of life than America. America does have the largest GDP of any country in the world, but also one of the highest costs of living and the highest income inequality. Regardless, at the end of the day, if you have more money than someone else, but you are lonely, depressed, working more, and have a lower quality of life than them, then who is the real winner?
A quintessential example is the American Elon Musk: CEO of Tesla and one of the richest people on the planet with a net worth of over 21 billion dollars. Last year, while giving a scheduled interview to the New York Times, he broke down crying and said that he has been working 120 hours per week, has gone several days in a row without stepping outside, and nearly missed his brother’s wedding because of work. He said that he often sleeps inside the factory and has to choose between taking the prescription drug sedative Ambien or not sleeping at all. Why would a man who has 21 billion dollars at his disposal – enough money to live out the rest of his life in extreme luxury on a private island of his choosing with all his friends and family and never have to work another minute of his life – continue to do this to himself? How could living that way be worth it? Isn’t there a better balance? If you asked Elon Musk why he chooses to live a life that makes him miserable when he has all the options in the world at his disposal, I’m not sure he could give you a rational answer…and neither could the millions of other people, especially Americans, who are in a similar situation and make the same choices as him every day.
What is the impact of this widespread loneliness?
Severe loneliness also has an economic impact. The New Economics Foundation claims that due to the effect that chronic loneliness has on employee health, productivity, staff turnover, and customer satisfaction, it is a public health issue costing employers £2.5 billion a year in Great Britain alone. Even if this number is somewhat inflated, chronic, severe loneliness undoubtedly has at least some negative impact on the economy in every country, so the cumulative total monetary impact on the world is likely to be astronomical.
The relationship between health and loneliness is a two-way street; those with worse health are more likely to be lonely and those who are lonely are more likely to have worse health. Americans whose health is considered to be very bad report feeling lonely often or always at a 24% higher rate than those whose health is considered very good. The impact of loneliness on health outcomes is a topic of increasing interest to researchers, and one of the most thorough and frequently cited studies was a meta-analysis of 128 studies conducted in Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia by the American Psychological Association. The review found that loneliness is linked to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, and, overall, and increased the risk of earlier death by over 50%. That is comparable to the increased risk of death induced by smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being morbidly obese, yet both governments and the general public are far more vocal about the dangers of smoking or being an unhealthy weight than they are about the need to combat loneliness. The American Association of Retired Persons estimates that social isolation costs Medicare $6.7 billion every year, and since Medicare only covers those 65 and older, this estimate does not even cover the full scope of the impact of loneliness on health care costs for all Americans, let alone the entire world, which undoubtedly costs private insurers, health care consumers, and taxpayers billions each year.
Like loneliness and physical health, loneliness and mental health are inextricably linked. In Australia, people who are lonely are 15% more likely to be depressed and 13% more likely to have social interaction anxiety. Loneliness is of course not synonymous with being alone, being alone does not necessarily mean you are lonely and you can feel lonely even if you are surrounded by people; rather, loneliness inherently implies a lack of emotional needs being met and a desire for close companionship. When any human has a need that is not being met, their well-being is negatively impacted, so even if you are not clinically depressed or anxious due to loneliness, it is obviously not a desirable state to be in at any time.
So what can we do about it?
One impactful solution would be greatly increasing the prevalence of shared living situations, and designing them to be more appealing to people with high incomes who desire greater amenities while still having the social benefits of sharing a living space. Companies like WeLive are already doing this, and creating spaces catered to young professionals in expensive cities like NYC. Living situations which are comparable to these and already exist also need to be rethought, such as retirement homes and university dormitories, which should be restructured with a more open floor plan, greater shared spaces for practical living like kitchens and gardens, and requirements for offering sponsored communal activities each week. Those living spaces would then more closely resemble co-operatives, in which residents typically live in a private room, but work together and socialize together as they share cleaning, cooking, and shopping duties for the entire house. Community planners in standard apartment buildings should also be required to adjust their development requirements to create more shared social spaces in their buildings and neighborhoods, such as community gardens, parks, and recreation centers.
WeLive’s much more famous and established parent company WeWork popularized the existence of shared office spaces, which are most often used by startup companies and small businesses which can’t afford a traditional office space but want a more collaborative environment, which has been shown to increase idea sharing and connections between employees; these types of offices could and should become the norm.
Increased loneliness is associated with higher healthcare utilization, yet healthcare workers are not required to ask about social connections and factor loneliness into their care and treatment plans. They should be trained to do so and to develop plans tailored to the social and physical needs of patients who are experiencing loneliness or social isolation.
Children are of course more susceptible to learning almost anything, and picking up a habit as a child makes it much more likely that that behavior will last into adulthood, so implementing a curriculum in schools to improve the social and communication skills of children would make it easier for them to connect to others beginning from a young age. One way to do this involves placing retirement homes and schools in the same building and creating designated interaction times, which would impact the two groups most likely to report being lonely – young people and the elderly.
Social media needs to be adjusted to focus beyond just making money to developing metrics to include considerations of users’ well-being, even if that means imposing more government regulations on company policies. Instagram has already taken some steps to promote the happiness of its users by test trialling the elimination of like counts, so people would not feel inferior if their post receives fewer likes than someone else’s. They have banned and attempt to remove all pictures and drawings of self-harm, a policy implemented after the suicides of multipe young people who viewed conent reating to self-harm and suicide before killing themselves. Social media can also provide great relief from loneliness when used to join online communities of people who share like interests, such as traveling or political activism; you can also join local groups that facilitate actual meetups to engage in all kinds of activities from mountain biking to trivia nights.
Parents could also consider enforcing “screen time limits” for their children of all ages, which could apply to TV, phones in general, or just certain apps like social media or YouTube. Parents could then encourage their children to use that time to simply free play, spend time in nature which has proven benefits for all ages, or to socialize with friends, siblings, other family members, or parents themselves.
Volunteering has been shown to provide benefits to both the recipients of service and the volunteers themselves; two-thirds of volunteers in the UK reported that volunteering caused them to feel less isolated, and a survey of American widows who were lonelier, on average, than those who were married found that after beginning to volunteer for at least two hours per week, their average level of loneliness subsided to match that of married adults.
National and local governments need to start treating loneliness like the public health issue that it is and create or revive social programs to encourage social interaction and destimagize opening up about loneliness. The UK recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to directly combat the issue and Germany is considering doing the same. The new minister has established Loneliness Awareness Week, which will attempt to harness social media as a force for positive impact instead of negative, as well as release an animated short film, Less of a Lonely Place, voiced by young people discussing their personal experiences of loneliness. The government is also investing £1m in a “Tech to Connect Challenge Prize” which will award funding to social enterprises and charities that submit plans to find tech solutions aimed at combating social isolation. They will also invest £800,000 in a new initiative to support activity in community spaces, though no details have yet been released on how exactly they will be spending these funds to support activities. The UK’s appointment of this official Minister of Loneliness is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and should be implemented in every government, especially in other countries like America, Australia, and Canada which are experiencing higher rates of loneliness than the rest of the world. 
It is also key to create a more communal environment in simple day to day life, an environment more closely resembling that found in countries known for their hospitality, such as Iran: an environment where strangers smile to each other on the street, ask the cashier how their day is going before they start scanning their groceries, where people talk to each other in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, in line at the grocery store, while waiting for the bus, and, of course, an environment where it would be normal to start a conversation with someone on the train. It is unlikely that a deep, eternal connection will be forged from these brief and polite interactions, but that is not the main goal; the point is simply to remind ourselves throughout all times of the day that this sea of people that surrounds us is composed of individual human beings, each with their own set of problems, fears, and a desire for connection and each of whom wants to be seen, just as we do ourselves.
Or perhaps the solution could be something that we just swallow along with our breakfast: Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago, is working on a very different kind of remedy: “a pill for loneliness,” as she calls it, and compares it to the widely accepted pharmacological treatments for anxiety and depression. Cacciopo is conducting a research study to determine the effects of the oral administration of a neurosteroid called pregnenolone. In a previous study conducted on 31 healthy people, ingesting allopregnanolone, a derivative of pregnenolone, decreased activity in the subjects’ amygdala and insula, which are the parts of the brain that process threat detection, emotional recall, and anticipate unpleasant reactions.
A final note
Of course, increasing wages, improving benefits, and creating shorter working weeks would give people more free time – but as discussed earlier, giving people more free time or money doesn’t guarantee that they will use that extra time to do the things most likely to increase their happiness instead of just continuing to work more. Modern culture in virtually every country worldwide increasingly prioritizes maximising production, consumption, materialism, and achieving status and fulfillment through one’s career. However, as loneliness rates increase and happiness rates decrease worldwide – and most profoundly in the countries which embody this material culture the most like America and the UK – it becomes clear that rank and file citizens are not benefiting from this mentality. The central beneficiaries instead include the upper level executives of corporations, advertising agencies, the disportionately wealthy, and governments. Corporations increasingly prioritize their bottom line over workers’ welfare, and the biggest priority of most has become maximising productivity for as little money as possible – and the best way to do that is to get people to work as many hours as possible for as little money as possible while buying as many consumer goods as possible, and all the while convincing people that this all of this stuff that they buy will be worth all of the hours that they spend working to pay for it. Advertisers constantly try to sell you something that they claim – either subtly or overtly – will make you happier, sexier, more relaxed, more energetic, more fulfilled, or more desirable. Additionally, government representatives disproportionately represent businesspeople, powerful and influential figures and industries, and the massively wealthy, who are all incentivized to perpetuate these societal structures, because they disproportionately benefit from them.
If you asked every person in the world what they want most from their life, I imagine that a great majority would say that they want to be happy more than anything else. Yet, most government policy worldwide is not created with the goal of happiness in mind – government policy largely focuses on the economy, safety, and practical matters like health care, which are certainly all things that we require to be happy, but they are not the only things that we need to be happy. The #1 metric of power and success for most countries is GDP (gross domestic product), but countries like Bhutan and New Zealand are beginning to consciously re-shape their governments to create policies with the goal of increasing their citizens’ happiness, and have accordingly begun measuring GNH – gross national happiness – in order to assess their impact. Scandinavian countries are well-known for topping the list of happiest countries year after year, and they also have a reputation for being huge welfare states which take a very active role in setting policy for many aspects of their citizens’ lives. If governments are really supposed to work towards the goals of the people, and the people want to be happy more than anything, then governments around the world should be looking towards the happiest countries in the world (rather than the richest countries) and imitating their public policy more closely. Every country in the world should measure GNH and should take its metrics into consideration when designing and implementing every policy.
If countries began to prioritize GNH over GDP, it is likely that they would subsequently introduce more legislation that would increase wages and benefits, reduce working hours, increase funding for community spaces, increase promotion and funding for the development of and recruitment for civic and recreational organizations, encourage citizens to volunteer for causes that they are passionate about, and begin campaigns to convince citizens that, for most people, fulfillment and happiness appear to lie more in building relationships with family and friends, self development, and being part of a community than in prioritizing work, money, material goods, and career status.
Additionally, as always, a certain measure of responsibility also lies with the individual to take steps to improve their own lives. Government programs, NGOs, service organizations, social media groups, and websites like Meetup.com already offer many social opportunities to facilitate gatherings and discussions, and promotion of these resources should be increased, but individuals are also capable of finding these opportunities on their own, and in the age of the internet, it is easier than ever to do so. If there were a million social gatherings with an open invite happening in one’s neighborhood, but one does not get out of bed on Saturday morning to attend a meetup, then they are useless. If one chooses to spend extra hours at work instead of utilizing those extra hours to socialize and chooses to prioritize their career over forming meaningful relationships, then that extra free time is useless. If one chooses to use social media in unhealthy ways, and spend their days obsessing over the lives of celebrities and wealthy people instead of spending time improving one’s own life, then policy changes for social media will be useless. If one hates coming home to an empty house but chooses to live alone instead of seeking out a flatshare or co-operative living community, then increasing the number and quality of such communities will be useless.
Thus, sweeping policy changes are clearly necessary to combat what has become a worldwide epidemic, individuals need to take advantage of the resources offered, and we as a whole need to destigmatize loneliness so that people are able to open up to others, so they can then receive emotional and practical support instead of letting those thoughts fester inside, because if that happens then nothing will change.