Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Loneliness

How the Loneliness Epidemic Evaded Psychologists

Embracing autonomy was a big mistake.

Key points

  • Loneliness severly impacts our mental and physical health.
  • America's leading psychological thinkers long ignored or even romanticized loneliness.
  • By extolling individual autonomy, they unwittingly hastened the social "atomization" happening around us.

Loneliness has suddenly become a hot subject in the mass media—and widely described as an "epidemic." In recent months, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other sources have highlighted the topic—undoubtedly spurred by a speech given at UCLA by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. In this extensively publicized speech, Dr. Murthy declared that "Mental health is the defining public health crisis of our time, and for many Americans, loneliness is at the heart of that crisis."

Citing research that's now incontrovertible, Dr. Murthy stated that "More than just a bad feeling, loneliness is a corrosive condition ... [leading to] increased risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide, as well as ... stress-related physical ailments like heart disease, stroke, and [even] dementia." He also noted that chronic loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily.

Such mass-media and public health attention is admirable, but an important question needs to be asked: Why has it taken so long for loneliness to be discovered by mental health professionals? Did loneliness suddenly burst without warning on American society—like the COVID-19 virus in early 2020? Of course not.

"Atomized" Into Isolated Units

For decades, the signs were unmistakable that people were being "atomized" (to use Hannah Arendt's memorable term) into isolated units and that this process would have serious consequences for personal and societal well-being. But Arendt was a political philosopher. Her conception had no impact on the cutting-edge personality theorists whose celebration of individual autonomy shaped American popular culture including magazines, movies, TV shows, and music.

How could this have happened? Like all intellectual movements, humanistic psychology arose in a particular zeitgeist and not in a historical vacuum. Virtually all its founders in the 1950s and early 1960s were Americans by birth or émigré status who were reacting to specific events and societal trends they had witnessed or actually experienced in war-torn Europe. These included the rise of totalitarianism under Hitler and Stalin, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the rise of extreme anti-communism forging widespread social conformity in America.

To be sure, these humanistic theorists regarded their work as an enduring, scientific perspective transcending the confines of time and culture. Nevertheless, they were inevitably influenced by their own era’s particular problems and challenges, which determined the aspects of human life they chose to emphasize, minimize, or simply disregard.

Just as Sigmund Freud overgeneralized about humanity from his early 20th-century bourgeois Viennese milieu with its repressed sexuality, so too did the well-meaning exponents of growth psychology fall prey to the “sampling error” of viewing human nature through the lens of mid-20th-century American culture with its conformist tendencies. Thus, cofounders like Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, and others tended to emphasize intrapsychic issues like authenticity and creativity linked to fulfillment, rather than social factors such as family stability and caregiving, neighborliness, and trade union solidarity that contributed to mental health.

An Under-the-Radar Trend

At the same time, they were essentially oblivious to a trend still “under the radar” in that era, but which now clearly poses a very different (and global) threat to human fulfillment than mass conformity: namely, societal atomization with its resulting effects of loneliness, personal isolation, and widespread anxiety and depression—especially among teens and young adults.

Countless examples abound. In Erich Fromm's bestseller The Sane Society, he abstractly attributed loneliness to humanity's overall loss of "primal union" with nature. May at times conflated loneliness with solitude, a state of being he prized as a source of self-knowledge and creativity. Clark Moustakas, a leading theorist of authenticity in daily life, insisted that loneliness "is as organic to human existence as the blood is to the heart." And Maslow, who saw benevolent autonomy as an ideal, neglected the entire topic. None seemed to understand that societal and economic forces were driving a growing loneliness in America. The sociologist Philip Slater was among the first to challenge the prevailing outlook in his book The Pursuit of Loneliness in 1970—whose warning was nevertheless ignored by psychologists for more than a generation.

Carl Jung brilliantly argued that artists and other creative people are often the first to sense powerful, nascent societal trends before noticed by others. In this context, Somerset Maugham's classic novel Of Human Bondage in 1915 depicted an introverted young man in London so lonely that he couldn't sleep. In ensuing decades, the American painter Edward Hopper vividly depicted scenes of lonely middle-aged men and women in both urban and rural settings. And, closer to our time, the bestselling writer Kurt Vonnegut, in novels like Cat's Cradle and Slapstick—and myriad college graduation speeches—offered such aphorisms as: "Cardiovascular disease isn't the leading cause of death in America, it's loneliness."

Raised in the Midwest with a depressive mother who committed suicide during his teens, Vonnegut was fortunate to have a large extended family who gave him the confidence to become a full-time, and ultimately celebrated, novelist. Undoubtedly, too, this empowering experience led him to adopt, with his wife, their three orphaned nephews—in addition to raising their own three children. As Vonnegut presciently wrote semi-autobiographically 50 years ago, "In an extended family, a child has scores of other houses to go in search of love and understanding. He need not stay home and ... starve for love ... The lack of (relatives) is not only the main cause, but probably the only cause, of our shapeless discontent in the midst of such prosperity."

Intriguingly, this notion is gaining increasing support from the longevity research associated with "Blue Zones" founder-journalist Dan Buettner. Based partly on his findings on why Okinawans enjoy such good health and long lives compared to most others, Buettner identified their close social ties that promote well-being. There's a special Japanese word that underlies this approach to life, and it's transliterated in English as "Moai." Having no connotation of "individual autonomy," it's a very useful notion for building a new model of personality growth.

References

Buettner, D. (2010). The blue zones: Lessons for living longer from the people who've lived the longest. National Geographic.

Buettner, D. (2021). The blue zones challenge. National Geographic.

Compton, W.C. & Hoffman, E. (2023). Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, 4th edition. Sage.

Fromm-Reichman, F. (1958). Loneliness. Psychiatry, 22 (1), 1–15.

Hoffman, E. (1994). The Drive for Self: Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology. Addison-Wesley.

Hoffman, E. (1999). The Right to Be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow, 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill.

Hoffman, E. (2003). (Editor). The Wisdom of Carl Jung. Citadel.

Slater, P. (1970/1990). The Pursuit of Loneliness, 3rd edition. Beacon.

Vonnegut, K. (2020). If This Isn't Nice, What Is? The Graduation Speeches and Other Words to Live By. 3rd edition. Seven Stories Press.

advertisement
More from Edward Hoffman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today