What You Need to Know About the Loneliness Epidemic

Part one in a series dedicated to loneliness and well-being.

Posted Jul 12, 2018

Ilolab/Shutterstock
Source: Ilolab/Shutterstock

We live in an era in which communication seems simpler than times of the past. In essence, a co-worker is one email away, a friend is one text away, and a loved one is one video chat away. Although communication may be easier and faster, connection may still be complicated. Therefore, despite the reputation for practical societal advancements, our technologically advanced time is also being linked to a loneliness epidemic. Citing his professional experiences, in which he noted loneliness as the most common pathology, former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy emphasizes that loneliness and emotional well-being are serious public health concerns.

Have reports of loneliness been increasing?

In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, it was found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated. Further, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel not close to people. 

Is loneliness detrimental to our health?

Loneliness is the subjective experience in which a person feels solitary. Loneliness is a common human emotion, and when fleeting, it is possible that an individual may not be gravely impacted. However, persistent and pervasive sentiments of isolation can be harmful to our health.

Loneliness has been associated with cardiovascular problems and premature death. Lonelier individuals are less likely to achieve quality sleep. Lonely individuals experience reductions in reasoning and creativity. In addition to these reduced abilities, loneliness affects workplace productivity, as lonely individuals report less job satisfaction and are more likely to face unemployment. Loneliness is commonly correlated with mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and suicidality. Similarly, loneliness is often associated with poor coping mechanisms, such as compulsive technology use, smoking, and self-harm.

What’s causing the loneliness epidemic?

It seems as though loneliness is on the rise for Americans regardless of geographic location, gender, race, or ethnicity. One factor that has been considered is the potential influence of living independently. According to Cigna’s Loneliness Index, those who live with others are less likely to be lonely. However, it was noted that this did not apply to single parents or guardians. Additionally, living with others does not protect against loneliness, as it is possible to feel lonely in the company of others as well.

Beyond living with others, about one in five Americans reports rarely or never feeling close to others. Further, two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful. Hence, the lack of quality relationships may be a large factor in loneliness. According to the Cigna Loneliness Index, only about 18 percent of participants believe that there are people with whom they can communicate. Perhaps it may be about the availability of quality individuals to connect with, but it may also be the lack of tools to foster connection.

Poor social skills have commonly been linked to loneliness and related mental health problems. However, researchers at the University of Arizona have highlighted that individuals with poor social skills often identify as lonely. Further, the awareness of communication and connection prompts stress that has a negative effect on physical health as well.

Lacking the ability to connect in the workplace can cause loneliness and negative work outcomes. According to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, workers who experienced higher levels of loneliness also reported fewer promotions, less job satisfaction, and a greater likelihood for frequently changing jobs. Moreover, the study illuminated that lawyers, doctors, and engineers were the occupations reporting the highest levels of loneliness. Since a large proportion of time is spent at work, individuals who are dissatisfied with their current levels of social support and connectedness at work may have feelings of loneliness evoked, or prior sentiments fostered.  

Individuals who are lacking connection in their lives may turn to the digital realm to quench their isolation. Longing for connection, someone who is lonely may be more connected to his or her phone. In a survey exploring the social media patterns of 1,781 young adults, it was found that individuals who logged in for a half an hour per day felt less lonely compared to individuals who logged on for more than two hours daily. Further, participants who logged in nine times weekly felt less isolated when compared to respondents who checked over 50 times per week. However, in the Cigna Loneliness Index, social media use was not found to be a predictor of loneliness. Hence, it may be important to consider quality versus quantity. Social media as a factor may be less about how often social media is utilized and more about how social media is used.

Loneliness is on the rise. The negative influence of loneliness on well-being are difficult to deny. Since loneliness a subjective experience, it is difficult to gain clarity into what variables are contributing to the increase in isolation. Nevertheless, the factors explored highlight common causes that are likely to influence loneliness. It is important to consider these factors in order to proactively prevent loneliness and combat the consequences of the pandemic.

In part two of this series, I will delve deeper into the influence of social media on loneliness.

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