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Are We Really Lonelier Than Ever?

Still not socially isolated: Debunking myths about loneliness.

Key points

  • There are few empirical studies about trends in feelings of loneliness from before the 21st century.
  • Existing studies do not suggest that loneliness has dramatically increased over the past several decades.
  • On average, loneliness seems to have slightly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’ve read any articles about loneliness recently, you may be convinced that the Western world is facing an epidemic of loneliness. The number of lonely people has exploded over the past several decades, while researchers have found that feeling lonely is as dangerous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. You may have concluded that we need to reduce social isolation in our increasingly individualized societies—especially among elderly people.

It may come as a surprise, then, that much of the above paragraph is exaggerated, strongly oversimplified, or only partially backed up by research. Indeed, scientific findings about loneliness are often unintuitive and more complex than many people think.

In this series of articles, I’ll shed light on a few misunderstandings—or even outright myths—about loneliness.

Myth Number 1: Loneliness has dramatically increased over the last several decades.

There are things that we will never know because there’s simply no data about them. The development of loneliness over the past several decades is one such thing.

In many industrialized countries, the numbers of people who live alone, who remain unmarried, or who get divorced seem to have increased.1 At the same time, involvement in communities such as clubs or political parties seems to have decreased.2 One can thus argue that we, on average, spend more time alone and are less embedded in traditional family bonds than at the beginning of the 20th century. However, there are few empirical studies telling us about trends in feelings of loneliness from before 2000.3

Clearly, this is not to say that there were no studies about loneliness then. However, these studies did not generally examine loneliness in the same group with the same loneliness measure over time. That is, numbers from these different studies are not as comparable to each other as if we had data from a single study that assessed loneliness multiple times in the same group.

Furthermore, samples in many such studies are not representative of any general population. They mostly consist of people who are easy to reach—such as people who are interested in the study topic, who are willing to report on their psychological experiences, or who are undergraduate students in courses that researchers teach.

Nevertheless, we can make cautious estimates about trends from these studies. So, did loneliness explode? Strikingly, it doesn’t seem that loneliness has strongly increased over time: While some studies indeed find increases, others find decreases, and yet others don’t find any changes at all.

At the same time, and although I cannot yet back this up with research, it seems that attention to loneliness has quite clearly increased in recent years, especially since the establishment of a British minister for loneliness in 2018. An explosion in such attention then arguably happened in 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic with its social distancing measures was believed to also entail a pandemic of loneliness. For the two lockdown-afflicted years after that, there is, for a change, also sufficient data to test that notion.

So, did loneliness explode with COVID-19? Not clearly so. A meta-analysis (that is, a summary of multiple existing studies) suggests slight increases in loneliness between the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2021 across countries from different parts of the world.4

This relatively small increase may come as a surprise because loneliness is often mixed up with social isolation. However, there are many more reasons for feeling lonely than social isolation alone—for instance, bereavement, separation or divorce, problems or decisions, a troubled family background, not finding a partner, conflicts in existing relationships, being part of a marginalized or stigmatized group such as a sexual minority, etc.5 Based on my own interviews with people from different places around the world, it seems that many, if not most, people feel lonely without being socially isolated or spending too much time alone.

As such, lockdowns may even have made some groups less lonely. For example, people who generally enjoy spending their evenings by themselves suddenly felt less different from others—and feeling different and misunderstood can make one feel quite lonely.4

Furthermore, people who did not feel connected to others at their workplace and who were now sent to work from home may suddenly have had many fewer triggers for loneliness. Indeed, some people I interviewed before the pandemic4 reported dealing with loneliness by practicing “relationship hygiene”—i.e., deliberately not spending too much time with people they did not feel connected or close to. If you couldn’t or didn’t manage to practice relationship hygiene before COVID, lockdowns forced you to (next to other types of hygiene, obviously).

Clearly, lockdowns made certain groups of people lonelier—otherwise, average levels wouldn’t have increased. For instance, in a large dataset from 41 countries, more extraverted people tended to report experiencing more loneliness in lockdown.6 Furthermore, one study found that people who preferred more physical closeness between themselves and other people were more likely to feel lonely in lockdown.7 Indeed, people whose social needs were not met in that situation were also more likely to feel lonely then.

(Notably, people who experience longer-lasting loneliness outside lockdowns typically prefer more interpersonal distance and are, on average, less extraverted.)5,6

But let’s leave the lockdowns behind and return to what we can conclude more generally. For one, we can conclude that we do not know much about changes in loneliness over time.

The key takeaway, however, is that there is little indication that loneliness has dramatically increased over the past decades. Generally high numbers of people reporting feeling severely lonely certainly indicate that loneliness is a societal problem we need to act on. Nevertheless, this problem may be less new than many people think.


[1] Snell, K. D. M. (2017). The rise of living alone and loneliness in history. Social History, 42, 2–28.

[2] Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.

[3] Luhmann, M., Buecker, S., & Rüsberg, M. (2023). Loneliness across time and space. Nature Reviews Psychology, 2(1), 9-23.

[4] Ernst, M., Niederer, D., Werner, A. M., Czaja, S. J., Mikton, C., Ong, A. D., Rosen, T., Brähler, E., & Beutel, M. E. (2022). Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review with meta-analysis.American Psychologist, 77(5), 660–677.

[5] For an overview, see Heu, L. C., Hansen, N., van Zomeren, M., Levy, A., Ivanova, T. T., Gangadhar, A., & Radwan, M. (2021). Loneliness across cultures with different levels of social embeddedness: A qualitative study. Personal Relationships, 28(2), 379-405.

[6] Ikizer, G., Kowal, M., Aldemir, İ. D., Jeftić, A., Memisoglu-Sanli, A., Najmussaqib, A., ... & Coll-Martín, T. (2022). Big Five traits predict stress and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence for the role of neuroticism. Personality and individual differences, 190, 111531.

[7] Saporta, N., Scheele, D., Lieberz, J., Stuhr-Wulff, F., Hurlemann, R., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2021). Opposing association of situational and chronic loneliness with interpersonal distance. Brain Sciences, 11(9), 1135.

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