Understanding the Loneliness Epidemic
Much like the opioid crisis, loneliness is an epidemic. According to results from Cigna’s U.S. Loneliness Index, a survey of more than 20,000 American adults ages 18 and older, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. One in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who understand them. Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others. And one in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to.
According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly has tripled since 1985. While the modal respondent in 1985 had three close friends, now the modal respondent reports having no confidant. According to the abstract, “These shrinking networks reflect an important change in America.”
A public health problem
Most people consider loneliness a “personal problem,” to be figured out by individuals. However, the complications arising from loneliness impact our health care system, using tax dollars for health care providers and facilities. Research has consistently associated loneliness with different kinds of disease and premature mortality. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health identified high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, disability, cognitive decline, and depression among the conditions affected by loneliness. What we have is a public health problem.
What’s worrisome is that there’s no easy solution. Unlike promising drugs for Hepatitis B or Alzheimer’s disease, no emerging technology or drug exists on the horizon to cure loneliness. The truth is that you can be in a meaningful relationship but still feel the sting of loneliness. According to the Cigna report, Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely compared to those who live alone, but not by much (average loneliness score of 43.5 compared to 46.4).
Don’t blame social media
Among the theories on why there is more loneliness today is more time online and less time in front of people. This seems logical in one sense. People are investing more of their time in virtual realities rather than relationships with their neighbors or classmates. All the hours on their phones or in front of their computer take away from the bonds they could be forming with real people.
However, according to Cigna’s report, social media shouldn’t take all the blame. Per the report, “Levels of in-person interactions, physical and mental wellness, and life balance are more likely to predict loneliness than social media usage.” The loneliness scores of respondents defined as very heavy users of social media were not markedly different from those who never use social media.
Young and lonely
You’d think that older generations are the lonely ones, but it’s actually the reverse. Generation Z (ages 18-22) had the highest loneliness scores, followed by the millennials (ages 23-37). The Greatest Generation (adults ages 72 and older) were the least lonely. According to the report, more than half of Gen Zers feel left out or isolated from others and identify with most of the feelings associated with loneliness. In contrast, only a quarter of people 72 or older feel left out or isolated from others.
In her Forbes article “Why Millennials Are Lonely”, author Caroline Beaton suggests that loneliness is more prevalent among millennials because it’s contagious. She cites a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego, and Harvard that found that participants are 52 percent more likely to be lonely if someone they’re directly connected to is lonely. Why? “Lonely people are less able to pick up on positive social stimuli, like others’ attention and commitment signals, so they withdraw prematurely – in many cases before they’re actually socially isolated,” she explains. “Their inexplicable withdrawal may, in turn, make their close connections feel lonely too.”
The other explanation she offers is too much time online. “The Internet temporarily enhances the social satisfaction and behavior of lonely people, who are more likely to go online when they feel isolated, depressed, or anxious,” she writes. While social media alone is not a predictor of loneliness, according to the Cigna report, the fact that older generations are less inclined to use social media than younger generations may factor into the equation of their lower loneliness scores.
Loneliness and the workplace
Workplace dynamics and workloads factor heavily into a person’s loneliness score. According to the report, those who say they work just the right amount are least likely to be lonely. Both working too much and not enough increase loneliness scores. Working more means you don’t have time for meaningful relationships and working too little puts you at risk for isolation.
“There is an inherent link between loneliness and the workplace, with employers in a unique position to be a critical part of the solution,” said Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna. “Fortunately, these results clearly point to the benefits meaningful in-person connections can have on loneliness.”
Antidotes to loneliness
So what do we do about the epidemic? What are the secrets of those with low loneliness scores? According to the report, “People who are less lonely are more likely to have regular, meaningful, in-person interactions; are in good overall physical and mental health; have achieved balance in daily activities; and are employed and have good relationships with their coworkers.”
Regular sleep. Sleep is critical for good health, in general, but it also seems to protect you from loneliness. People who get the right amount of sleep had lower loneliness scores than those who sleep too little or too much. In fact, the well-rested folks are significantly less likely to feel as though they lack companionship (37 percent versus 62 percent of people who oversleep) and more likely to feel like they have someone they can turn to (85 percent versus 71 percent).
Family time. Likewise, spending time with your family is key, with an emphasis on the right amount of time. Spending too much time can take away from friendships and feeling part of a group outside your immediate clan (73 percent of people who spend too much time with their family felt this way versus 64 percent who spend the right amount), and believing you can find companionship when you need it (74 percent versus 67 percent).
Exercise. The same goes with exercise. Those who work out too much had an uptick of 3.5 points in their loneliness score as compared to those who exercise the right amount. Those who didn’t exercise enough had an increase of 3.7 points.
Loneliness is a significant health problem that affects everyone. It’s complicated and messy. While we may never arrive at a simple cure for this condition, it seems that finding the right balance with regard to family time, work, exercise, and sleep is a good starting place to sustain meaningful relationships and lower our loneliness scores.
McPherson, M. Smith-Lovin, L. & Brashears, M.E. (2006, June 1). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3): 353-375. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000312240607100301
Gerst-Emerson, K. &Jayawardhana, J. (2015, May). Loneliness as a public health issue: The impact of loneliness on health care utilization among older adults. American Journal of Public Health, 105(5): 1013-1019. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4386514/
Beaton, C. (2017, Feb. 9). Why millennials are lonely. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinebeaton/2017/02/09/why-millennials-are-lonely/#751c645d7c35
Loneliness can be contagious, study finds [blog post]. University of Chicago News. Retrieved from https://news.uchicago.edu/story/loneliness-can-be-contagious-study-finds