If the problem is loneliness, the solution is simple: human connection. But that may be easier said than done. The current era—replete with media fragmentation, political polarization, and social media hostility—doesn’t naturally lend itself to compassionate encounters, which is part of the reason there’s a loneliness epidemic in the first place. Social distancing measures and government lockdowns have accelerated these trends.
More and more, curing loneliness the “old-fashioned way” is becoming difficult. But while governments scramble for answers, the market has already sprung into action. And the means by which companies capitalize on this demand can seem somewhat dystopian.
This includes the RentAFriend app, which as the name implies, helps match you with “friends.” Except this isn’t “Tinder for friendships,” it's a transactional service. You pay the person $40/hr to serve as your temporary friend. They’ll get dinner with you, grab drinks after work, or—for an extra fee—attend a concert with you. It operates in dozens of countries around the world and offers over 620,000 platonic friends for hire online.
RentAFriend is far from alone. There are a host of platforms that provide different loneliness-based services. In The Lonely Century, Noreena Hertz chronicles the case of “Carl,” the man who went into financial debt supporting his need for connection. And no, this wasn’t prostitution or escort services. Carl became unable to live without paid cuddling.
Hordes of services have popped which provide professional cuddling services. Carl’s first experience was with Jean, his paid cuddler, who would cuddle and caress him for $80/hour.
He describes the experience as “transformative.” “I went from really depressed and very unproductive at work to someone whose productivity skyrocketed.” This brought Carl the instant cure for the loneliness he longed for. But while this started out positive, his drive became insatiable. Eighty dollars an hour a few times a week quickly ballooned to $2,000/week. Ultimately, he gave up his apartment and lived in his car in order to support his cuddle habit.
As Hertz describes, “It’s a tragic story. A professional middle-aged man so desperate for human contact that in order to be able to afford it, he’s been willing to give up his home... his life had become so barren that these were the lengths he was willing to go to.”
Loneliness As An Unmet Social Need
Carl may be unique in the lengths he went to fill this unmet need. But he’s far from alone. A burgeoning loneliness economy has been on the rise for years. The market is capitalizing on our rising demand for human connection that "regular" relationships aren’t meeting.
As we’ve seen, many of these involve transactional human interactions. But other solutions take humans out of the picture completely. Instead, these are products that go the “Pet Rock” route: objects which tap into our tendency to personify inanimate entities—and in doing so, find a cure for loneliness outside the human realm. It’s one thing to approach this loneliness epidemic by putting people together—even transactionally—but it's a very different thing to removing other people completely.
Loneliness is an unmet social need. But the impact of loneliness actually goes beyond just a drive to connect. It changes how we connect with others. And as we'll see, how we connect with other things. It turns out that even a Pet Rock can become much more.
This is a multi-part series on the psychology and business of loneliness. In the next piece, we’ll explore the psychology of how loneliness warps our sense of reality, and how this takes the loneliness economy to a whole new level.
This post also appears on the consumer psychology blog PopNeuro
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Behr, R. (2021). Noreena Hertz, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. The Review of Austrian Economics, 1-4.
Hertz, N. (2021). The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. New York: Penguin Random House.