Is There Really a Worldwide Crisis of Loneliness?
Researchers and commentators need to distinguish between loneliness and social isolation.
In 2018, citing “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” British prime minister Teresa May created the government post of “Minister of Loneliness.” In 2020, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published a book, Together, in response to the loneliness he heard about repeatedly during a months-long listening tour of America. Authorities in Japan, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere have raised similar alarms and proposed solutions.
But is there really an epidemic of loneliness? What I found, when I looked into this, was social scientists, media commentators and government officials again and again talking about “loneliness and social isolation” as two linked aspects of one horrible problem that not only causes mental suffering but also worsens dementia, damages one’s immune resources and shortens lives.
But as many introverts know, loneliness and social isolation do not necessarily go hand in hand. Loneliness is distress about feeling alone, something that people who are constantly interacting with others can experience, as can people who spend much of their time alone. Social isolation refers to people having relatively few personal interactions with others, which may feel either blessed or painful.
And although much media coverage assumes that the pandemic, with its lockdowns, cancellations and social distancing, exacerbated the prevalence of loneliness, that is none too clear. Many, many introverts say they enjoyed the reduced social pressure for togetherness when they were suddenly free to work from home and tend to solitary hobbies. Remember that introverts need time alone to think and recharge while extroverts thrive with constant people time.
I’m writing this post to encourage your skepticism when you read or hear about the purported epidemic of loneliness. Keep these points in mind.
How to be skeptical about the purported epidemic of loneliness
1. Statistics about people’s number or frequency of friends, family interactions or social contacts do not indicate anything at all about whether or not they feel lonely. Remember that someone who has a jam-packed social calendar and rarely spends time alone can feel lonely.
2. When commentators cite evidence for the “loneliness epidemic,” consider whether that very evidence might show the opposite of what they’re claiming. For instance, if more people now live alone than at any previous time in world history, mightn’t a good number of those people be happier that way?
3. Challenge the well-meaning but damaging assumptions of those who use one-size-fits-all measures of mental health, regardless of preferences or personality. Not everyone needs to “get out more,” join a church or reading group or find a boyfriend/girlfriend in order to attain an even emotional keel.
4. Watch out for others jumping to conclusions using extroverted benchmarks – for example that anyone over a certain age living by themselves deserves pity, or that someone sitting alone in a beautiful place must be feeling sad. Likewise, from the New York Times last month: “Unknown is the lasting effects of two years of prolonged isolation and the loneliness that came with it.” You need to independently confirm that those two years produced loneliness. Assuming that isolation obviously caused increased loneliness, or relying on mere anecdotal evidence of this, is unscientific and harmful to people who have less of a need for social connection.
5. Avoid prescribing remedies for presumed loneliness before you’ve ascertained whether the person in question actually feels lonely, is experiencing other problems or simply prefers their own company. The only way to know whether living alone, seeing few people during a typical day or having just a few friends is a problem is to ask.
I haven’t yet done enough research to definitively state that the “epidemic of loneliness” doesn’t exist. But I do know that all too many of those writing about the issue are relying on myths, misconceptions and mix-ups between the despair of loneliness and neutral facts about people’s degree and kind of social interactions. Don’t you do the same in your thinking!