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Loneliness Revisited: A Fallacy Continues
Too often, commentators and media reports continue to give the impression that isolation and loneliness are one and the same. This matters for introverts who enjoy being alone.
In early May, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy joined the global outcry about the supposed public health crisis of loneliness. I say “supposed” because in a previous post expressing skepticism about this so-called worldwide epidemic, I pointed out several myths and misconceptions in the media coverage and governmental proclamations about this issue. For example, numbers indicating someone’s degree of social isolation or social connection do not show whether someone is lonely. Loneliness is a feeling of sadness because one’s wishes for connectedness are not being met. Someone with 2,000 social contacts can feel lonely, and someone with just two does not necessarily feel lonely.
Logically and empirically, I see no way to dispute the distinction between social isolation and loneliness. On their best days, many experts actually acknowledge this point. All the same, I decided to determine the extent to which coverage of the Surgeon General’s recent media campaign mistakenly said isolation was the same as loneliness. I selected articles on the topic from the first week in May 2023 in five prominent news publications: the Washington Post, BBC, Los Angeles Times, NPR and The Guardian.
The Washington Post warned in its lead paragraphs of the “profound public health threat” posed by loneliness, with the remedy being Americans spending more time with one another, especially in person. Nowhere in the article was it mentioned that individuals have different needs for social connection. Throughout, the article links loneliness and social isolation as two aspects of one phenomenon. In the comments section, however, the top-rated thread objected that the Surgeon General’s recommendations make no sense for people who feel “Quality, not quantity, is the key for me” or “I'm glad I have retired, my employer can't force me to attend parties and company picnics anymore.” One-size-fits-all advice to boost one’s level of social activity hits many introverts as wrongheaded.
Coverage in BBC News also did not note the distinction between the feeling of loneliness and numerical measures of social connection or isolation. On the contrary. One short paragraph started “Loneliness is reported to increase the risk of premature death by almost 30%,” while the next paragraph started “Lack of social connection is also linked to lower academic achievement.” The way these two paragraphs flow implies that loneliness and lack of social connection represent the same phenomenon.
In the Los Angeles Times article, paragraphs two and three cite statistics about the rate of loneliness among young adults and elders changing over time. Paragraph four, without any signal that we have gone on to another topic, discusses social disconnection and isolation. Paragraph five provides a statistic for the percent of people who feel “lonely or isolated”: So are these the same thing or different? Not until paragraph seven does the article provide definitions that clarify the distinction between the two phenomena. Kudos to the LA Times for including this! But it didn’t draw out the significance of the distinction.
NPR covered the Surgeon General’s early May publicity blitz by interviewing Eric Liu, co-founder of an organization that aims to build community across America. Liu agreed with the thrust of Murthy’s diagnoses and recommendations, remarking, “Everybody wants to connect… We are sick, angry and alone when we get this disconnected from one another.” Interestingly, the NPR host pushed back against Liu’s universal generalizations, noting that he enjoys working alone for the radio network, 2,000 miles away from his coworkers. So prompted, Liu conceded that needs for connection and solitude vary. But he finished by emphasizing that relating in a community “is the most important thing we can do” – continuing, it seemed to me, to maintain that isolation harms us all.
The Guardian’s coverage went awry at once, in the subtitle of their article: “Vivek Murthy urged public officials to treat isolation with the same urgency as substance abuse or tobacco.” That is, it highlighted isolation, rather than loneliness, as the core problem. In paragraph two the article represented isolation and loneliness as one issue, not two. To repeat: Isolated people are not necessarily lonely, and lonely people are not necessarily isolated. The problem crying out for a solution is thus actually loneliness, not isolation. Nowhere did this article distinguish these phenomena.
Why does this matter? Am I making a teetering tower out of a technicality? Surgeon General Murthy’s recommendations for addressing the supposed epidemic of loneliness include “mobilizing the health sector to address the medical needs that stem from loneliness.” If this means doctors should ask folks at their annual physical whether they feel lonely or depressed, then that’s a positive development.
However, if a campaign to prevent loneliness does not include awareness that individual needs for connection differ, then I fear a grown-up version of the scolding many introverts experienced while growing up: “You should get out more! You should have more friends!” I fear introverts who are perfectly content with a small number of intimates may get stigmatized by the medical profession as “socially fragile.” (“Socially fragile populations are those at higher risk for disease progression because of social circumstances or barriers.”) I fear checklists assessing someone’s scanty social life as an indicator of poor mental health, and I fear a revival of some psychiatrists’ efforts to get introversion formally defined as a mental disorder.