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Why Are We So Lonely?

The reality of the loneliness epidemic — and how to fight it.

Key points

  • Loneliness can increase the risk of a wide range of physical and mental health problems.
  • Feeling lonely is the brain's survival mechanism telling you to go connect with people.
  • Starting a new class, exercising in a group, or volunteering are some ways to better connect with people.
Photo by Resat Kuleli on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Resat Kuleli on Unsplash

When I swapped the hustle and bustle of the city of London for quiet country living in rural France, I was relieved. Finally, I could have some personal space. Finally, I didn’t need to see anyone except my husband and dog if I didn’t want to. Yet, after a year or two, that relief turned into something totally different. It turned into loneliness.

As a solitary introverted soul, this took me by surprise. I loved quality time with me and myself, and I enjoyed my career as a writer that I could do from the comfort of my home. I had the constant company of my adoring dog and my evenings were filled with social activities with my husband. Yet, somehow, I still felt something was missing. I still felt lonely.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this — which is weirdly comforting. According to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, rates of loneliness in the US have at least doubled since the 1980s. According to a survey by the Economist and The Kaiser Family Foundation, 22% of adults in the United States and 23% in the United Kingdom reported they “always or often feel lonely”. Why do we think this is the case? Multiple factors might be at play.

In the US, the number of individuals living alone has risen substantially, limiting social interactions for those taking part in this trend. Social engagement in communities, civic organizations, and social sporting leagues is dropping year on year. Remote working from home is also on the rise post COVID-19 and many of these employees report higher levels of loneliness. Finally, we are more technologically connected than ever, giving us a false sense of human connection from the online world that lacks the camaraderie we can only get from face-to-face connections. And this is just it.

Humans are a social species and social connections are essential for our survival. This is why loneliness can lead to a multitude of mental and physical health challenges. A 2015 study by UCLA uncovered that social isolation can generate inflammatory cellular changes, making you more susceptible to a wide range of physical conditions like heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and metastatic cancer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, numerous studies have also linked social isolation to depression, anxiety, fatigue, and PTSD. None of this sounds appealing, right?

The good news is that loneliness can be fixed. This is the silver lining that Matthews and companions found in their 2016 study on the neuroscience of loneliness: the fact that we can feel loneliness makes it easier for us to address it. So, how do we go about doing it? Here are some tips to get started.

1. Start a new activity or hobby in a group setting.

This is a great way to not only get your feel-good hormones going but to also meet new people. Find an activity you enjoy as you'll more easily connect with people with similar interests. For me, this was a pottery class!

2. Exercise in a group setting.

We all know that exercise is good for us on many levels, boosting our mood, energy, and health all at once. Add a group element to it and you’re also boosting your social connections. It’s a great way to meet new friends or reconnect with existing ones.

3. Adopt a pet.

My dog certainly keeps me company and I know I would feel a lot lonelier without him. Is this something you could consider? If it is, make sure you have the necessary means to take care of them. If not, you can join dog-walking communities like Borrow My Doggy to get your healthy dose of animal love.

4. Swap your smartphone to an actual human being.

We have ended up in the most technologically connected era with the least socially connected human beings. Online connections give us a false sense of connection when in fact they lack the authenticity, companionship, and sense of belonging that we get from real-life interactions. In fact, the online world can drive us to feelings of social isolation. Make the effort to meet your favorite friends and family face-to-face as often as you can.

5. Talk to people.

In my piece, "When Did We Stop Talking to Each Other," I mention how easy it is for us to look at our phones rather than at the world around us. The challenge is the world around us is a lot more fulfilling — including the people in it! Next time you’re waiting for a bus, in the queue in a coffee shop, or anywhere with people, start a conversation with someone next to you. It doesn’t need to be long or complicated, but the simple act of opening yourself to human connection will make a difference.

6. Focus on quality, not quantity.

You don’t need a hundred friends to feel less alone (hasn’t social media shown this already?). A handful of quality friends you know you can count on is enough. Invest in the relationships you have. Friendships, just like romantic relationships, need care to keep them fruitful. Put the time in, and the rewards will be magical.

7. Volunteer.

Working on a cause that you believe in with others who believe in the same cause is likely to lead to new connections.


Brian A. Primack, Ariel Shensa, Jaime E. Sidani, Erin O. Whaite, Liu yi Lin, Daniel Rosen, Jason B. Colditz, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. Americal Journal of Preventative Medicine (2017) 53:1, pages 1-8, DOI:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010

Gillian A. Matthews, Edward H. Nieh, Caitlin M. Vander Weele, Sarah A. Halbert, Roma V. Pradhan, Ariella S. Yosafat, Gordon F. Glober, Ehsan M. Izadmehr, Rain E. Thomas, Gabrielle D. Lacy, Craig P. Wildes, Mark A. Ungless, Kay M. Tye. Dorsal Raphe Dopamine Neurons Represent the Experience of Social Isolation. Cell (2016) 164:4, Pages 617-631, ISSN 0092-8674,

Manfred E. Beutel, Eva M. Klein, Elmar Brähler, Iris Reiner, Claus Jünger, Matthias Michal, Jörg Wiltink, Philipp S. Wild, Thomas Münzel, Karl J. Lackner, and Ana N. Tibubos. Loneliness in the general population: prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry (2017) 17:97.

Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community 2023.

Steven W. Cole, John P. Capitanio, Katie Chun, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, and John T. Cacioppo. Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. PNAS, Volume 112, Issue 49, December 2015, pages 15142–15147.

The Economist and Kaiser Family Foundation (2018). Loneliness is a serious public health problem. Available URL:

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