by Henry Kokkeler
As the pandemic recedes and Americans re-enter public life, the surgeon general and other public health experts are urging the country to focus on another national crisis, one that has lingered for decades and worsened in recent years: loneliness.
For many, pandemic-related lockdowns, social distancing, and physical isolation resulted in their most severe experiences of loneliness. Studies have shown that an uptick in loneliness and other mental health issues coincided with the pandemic, and that lockdown requirements almost certainly exacerbated pre-existing mental conditions. But for researchers who have studied loneliness, the recent increase is only one notable event in an extensive history.
Loneliness is not just a crisis in America, but also in Europe, Canada, Japan, China, Australia and, increasingly, South America and Africa. Loneliness also occurs regardless of race, class, culture, and religion. Even before the lockdowns, tens of millions of people throughout the world felt isolated.
A March 2020 report by health care provider Cigna found that out of 10,441 adults surveyed, 61% said they felt lonely — a seven percentage-point increase from 2018. And according to a preliminary study published in February 2021 from Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project, 36% of respondents reported feeling serious loneliness “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in October 2020. The demographic make-up of lonely respondents included 61% of young adults ages 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children.
Niobe Way, professor of developmental psychology at New York University and author of “Crisis of Connections,” told RealClearPolitics that she is forming a group of national researchers under an entity called the Building Connections Collective. It consists of 10 national organizations researching human psychology and is raising funds for a national database to help create “opportunities for social connections within and across communities.”
According to the Harvard study, loneliness is defined as “the negative feelings that emerge from a perceived gap between one’s desired and actual relationships.” It does not merely mean the lack of friends: People with many friends can still feel lonely, just as those with few friends may rarely or never feel lonely.
The damage it causes can be severe. Loneliness is implicated in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, even heart disease. It increases the likelihood of mortality and, according to one estimate, can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A 2017 report from AARP estimates that the treatment of social isolation costs Medicare $6.7 billion annually.
“Loneliness is a brutal experience,” Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and co-director of the MCC team at Harvard, told RCP. “It’s anguishing, it can be excruciating.” Weissbourd co-authored the Harvard study, and in April he collected a comprehensive national data set showing that, while rates of loneliness have decreased since the height of the pandemic, it still remains as high as one in five Americans.
Weissbourd provided RCP with his latest figures, which he expects to publish in full later this summer. The numbers show significant differences in the effects of loneliness by partisan leanings, age, income, and education, but none by region, race or community type.
The political differences are not stark, but they are significant: 22% of Democrats reported feeling “serious loneliness,” compared to 15% of Republicans. But ignoring politics is not the answer: Non-voters are lonelier than those who participate in elections. By age, older Americans felt less lonely than younger Americans.
It doesn’t help to be poor, either: 29% of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year experience serious loneliness. For those making six figures or higher, the percentage was less than half that. Education is also a factor: 31% of respondents who didn’t finish high school experienced serious loneliness. Among those with at least a four-year college degree did, this figure was 13%.
In 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a “minister for loneliness” to confront its $3.5 billion public health crisis. Japan followed suit this February, appointing a loneliness minister after suicide rates in the country rose for the first time in 11 years.
While neither Weissbourd nor Way believes the U.S. government will appoint a loneliness czar, they believe doing so wouldn’t hurt. Way says the surgeon general should assume this role, but that President Biden should also become a spokesperson for the issue.
The root causes of loneliness vary. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, suggests that America’s sense of individualism is one factor. “We value being self-reliant, and needing help is often viewed as a weakness. Even when help is offered, we often have a hard time accepting help,” she told RCP.
Weissbourd pinpoints the self-esteem movement, born in the 1960s, as being partly responsible for an over-emphasis on attaining happiness. “Happiness is not a bad thing,” he said, “but we have a lot of parents who are over-attuned to their kids’ happiness, and under-attuned to their kids’ relationships.”
Emblematic of this is sex-ed courses, he said, noting that students are taught more about how to have safe sex than about how to develop healthy intimate relationships. “Having a good romantic relationship is a wonderful buffer to loneliness. It helps tremendously.” But “if you look at what schools focus on, which is usually bad sex-ed, it isn’t about love.” It’s rarely about how to develop relationships, how to maintain them, and how to deal with breakups, “and in our research we find large numbers of kids want to talk about those things,” Weissbourd added.
Way targeted the deregulatory economic policies of the late-20th century as a culprit, blaming the rise of income inequality and the drift toward a “me, me, me” culture. She believes the increased use of self-referential language reveals this trend: Starting in the ’70s and ’80s, pronouns such as “me” and “I” were in much greater use than “we,” which “started to fade out of our language.”
Of particular concern for researchers is young people’s experience with loneliness. As it is often accompanied by depression, “it can make them more vulnerable to other emotional problems later in life,” Weissbourd said.
It’s not the individual that needs to be fixed, said Way — it’s society. “We live in a culture that doesn’t value what we most want in the world, which is each other.” The researchers encourage viewing loneliness as a social problem rather than a merely individual one. “Everyone wants to connect; it’s not a partisan issue,” Way said.
The implications of loneliness go deeper for Way, who believes that political extremism, an increase in violent crime, and school shootings are symptomatic of this condition. In response to a recent New York Times article that suggested ambivalence at a motive of mass shooters, Way retorted: “Yes, we know, we’ve been knowing for a long time.” It’s an attempt to kill themselves and others because they’re angry at their own isolation, “that nobody’s listening and nobody cares.” Even mice, when isolated for long periods of time, become “extremely violent,” she added.
The solutions, these experts say, include destigmatizing loneliness and reaching out to one another on a personal basis – whether you are the person who’s lonely or whether you suspect a friend or relative is suffering from isolation. On a national scale, the proposed remedies include increased college attendance and universal national service.
“Helping people who are lonely or depressed is hard,” said Weissbourd. “If we’re going to build the kind of society we want, we’re all going to have to sacrifice.”
– – –
Henry Kokkeler is a student at Washington State University and an intern at RealClearPolitics.