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Scaremongering About Living Alone: A Case Study

People who live alone are very unlikely to be depressed.

Key points

  • A misleading NPR headline implied that people living alone are especially likely to be depressed.
  • In a CDC study, people living alone had significantly higher rates of depression only if living in poverty.
  • Negative portrayals in the media can make people who love living alone doubt themselves.

An article on the NPR website, about a segment on Morning Edition, came with this headline: “Americans who live alone report depression at higher rates, but social support helps.” What were those “higher rates”? Just guessing, maybe about 70 percent? Surely more than half?

In the Facebook group, The Community of Single People, Monica Pignotti flagged that article. Wisely, she did not stop at the headline. She looked for the actual percentage of people living alone who feel depressed. The answer: 6 percent! A more accurate headline would be something like, “Americans who live alone report very low rates of depression.”

The actual headline referred to “higher rates,” a comparative claim. People living alone, we are led to believe, are more likely to be depressed than people living with others. But the rates of depression for people not living alone were 4 percent. With the large number of people in the study (nearly 30,000), that was a statistically significant difference from 6 percent, but as Monica suggested, it may not be a meaningful difference. I doubt that anyone reading just the headline would guess that the difference was just two percentage points.

People Living Alone Are More Depressed Only if They Get Almost No Social Support

The headline does include the qualifier that “social support helps.” I went to the original research report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to see the numbers. Participants—a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States aged 18 years and older—were asked, “How often do you get the social and emotional support you need?” They could answer rarely or never, sometimes, usually, or always. Only if the participants rarely or never got the emotional support they needed were the people living alone more likely to be depressed than the people living with others (20 percent vs. 12 percent).

People Living Alone Are More Depressed Only if They Are Impoverished

The CDC study also reported rates of depression by four levels of income: below the federal poverty level, up to twice the poverty level, from twice to four times the poverty level, and the highest level of income, more than four times the poverty level. The people living alone reported significantly higher rates of depression than those living with others only if they were living in poverty, 14 percent versus 9 percent.

Income also mattered in a previous study of loneliness among more than 16,000 Germans ranging in age from 18 to 103 years. When the researchers simply compared all the people living alone with all the people living with others, the people living alone were lonelier. But when they matched people on income so that they were comparing people living alone with people living with others when both groups had the same income, then they found that the people living alone were actually less lonely. (I discussed those findings in greater detail here at Living Single.)

Older People Are Very Unlikely to Be Depressed When Living Alone

The stereotype of old people living alone is that they are sad and lonely. But, according to the CDC study, that caricature may be exactly wrong. Among those 65 and older who were living alone, only 5 percent reported feeling depressed. People between the ages of 45 and 64 had the highest rate of depression when living alone, though at 9 percent, even that wasn’t very high. (For the other two age groups, 18-29 and 30-44, the rate was 6 percent, close to the rate for the oldest group.)

Why This Matters

Media messages matter. We should be able to trust in what we read, even if we read no more than a headline, especially from prestige media such as NPR. Typically, we can. But when it comes to matters such as living alone, we are at greater risk of scaremongering.

Unjustifiably negative portrayals of solo living, or of being single, are evident in other domains, too, such as popular culture and even in reports of scientific research. The cumulative effect is that people who love living alone, or love being single (such as the single at heart), come to doubt themselves. Or worse—they worry that something is wrong with them. Think about that: They have what we all want, a life that they love. But instead of feeling encouraged to embrace their most fulfilling and authentic way of living, they wonder whether they should instead live the way they are expected to live. That’s unfair to them, especially when the actual findings are not at all what they have been led to believe. It undermines their potential to fully flourish.


Rhitu Chatterjee. Americans who live alone report depression at higher rates, but social support helps. NPR. February 15, 2024.

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