Chasing the Loneliness Epidemic Won’t Cure What Ails Us

Lonely person on train station platform.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

A minister of loneliness has been appointed in the United Kingdom. In Japan, an emerging industry cleans up the mess of people who died alone and weren’t found for days or weeks. And former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has called loneliness a “growing health epidemic.” Who’s suffering from this crisis? Men. Queer people. Old people. And young people.

Though loneliness can be devastating, the contention that our society is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness not only idealizes relationships of the past but also oversimplifies what it would actually take to combat it.

How do we know something as existential as loneliness is “on the rise”? Read almost any news about the rise of loneliness in the U.S., and you’ll likely find a citation from the same study: The General Social Survey tracks Americans’ connectedness to others by asking them to list the names of those they speak to about important matters. In 2004, the survey replicated a set of questions that had last been asked in 1985. The findings were a bombshell to researchers. A 2006 paper on the study showed the number of people who count zero close confidants had tripled from 1985 to 2004. The tripling of “zero confidant” responses from 1985 to 2004 stunned researchers, including Matthew Brashears, a professor of sociology at University of South Carolina, who was a co-author on the original report.

After mainstream news picked up the story and ran with it, researchers realized the initial data may have been more complicated than it first appeared. Some of the problems were methodological, but Brashears also says it’s possible many respondents who say they don’t have people with whom they discuss important matters simply didn’t think of those kinds of exchanges as “important.” This definition becomes even more fraught when making historical comparisons. What might have been an important, intimate, even sensitive conversation area for my grandmothers might be something I shoot off a few indelicate text messages about to my girlfriends’ group text thread before bed. I’d be unlikely to list all the women on that thread as “important-matters discussion partners.”

Despite the caveats, Brashears and the co-authors remained confident that “[B]ased on the 1985 and (corrected) 2004 data, our analyses continue to show a significant increase in the number of people who report that they do not discuss important matters with anyone, and a downward trend in the average number of confidants.” What that means about the changing nature of Americans’ personal networks and general well-being, Brashears noted, is a different question: “I’m less confident this result says we therefore are cut off from each other and therefore Western civilization is coming to an end as you know it.”

It might just be that relationships have changed, rather than gotten worse. Brashears says some research shows that we divide up our social networks differently than in the past. We might rely on one group of people to watch our kids in an emergency and another for financial support and yet another to discuss difficult matters. “And the overlap between these groups is not necessarily as high as you might expect,” said Brashears. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re actually interacting with fewer people. It can mean we’re just dividing up our people in a different way than we used to.”

Historians too are skeptical about the idea of a recent massive uptick in loneliness. In an article in Social History, K.D.M. Snell, professor of rural and cultural history at University of Leicester, writes that, “From the 1960s onwards, across a number of studies and cultures, between 30 to 50 percent of those surveyed report feeling lonely, and about 10–30 percent report being intensely lonely.” Sometimes surveys show those numbers higher and sometimes lower, Snell notes.

In some ways, loneliness has been part and parcel of modernity, as the Industrial Revolution broke up large agrarian households and dispersed individuals who could suddenly afford to live alone for long stretches of their lifetimes throughout cities.

Historian Stephanie Coontz says the loneliest times in modern history happened around the 17th and 18th centuries with the rise of mercantilism, as swaths of workers were forced from their homes and out to sea and other far-away workplaces to earn a living. The homesickness and nostalgia for the loss of close-knit communities, she said, could often be unbearable.

Today, most people in the U.S. don’t have to experience an upheaval like this, but are nonetheless more mobile and less socially rooted than pre-modern people. “You know, ‘a new epidemic’ may be a little exaggerated. But I do think it speaks to one of the dilemmas of modern, mobile society and that is that as we gain the freedom to become whatever we want to be we’ve lost the sense of belonging with all the restrictions that put upon us but also all of the security and comfort,” said Coontz.

That lots of people feel lonely might reflect what is actually a good thing—that we have higher standards for intimate relationships than our ancestors could have dreamed of. For example, Coontz notes that we have higher expectations of married relationships than we ever have in the past. Indeed, this pickiness may be causing us to invest less in our other relationships and account for part of the GSS finding that the number of people we count as confidants has gotten smaller. But is this such a bad thing? Though surveys show we are less happy in our marriages than we were 50 years ago, Coontz asks, would anyone, especially women, really want to go back and live in one of those marriages?

This is part of the problem with the idea that loneliness is suddenly epidemic. It might produce a nostalgia for an imagined past in which we all had fulfilling relationships and a community to hold us up when we needed it, when really, history’s denser social networks could be much more oppressive, especially for women, queer folks, and people of color.

The other problem with the so-called loneliness epidemic is that it treats a complex problem like a single, universal phenomenon. In an unequal society like this one, loneliness for different people can actually stem from entirely different roots. Take Vivek Murthy’s framing of the issue: “In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.” It seems obvious that the reasons CEOs would feel lonely at work are quite different from why one-third of Americans over 45 the AARP surveyed feel the same way. The latter problem speaks to the ageism of our labor market, our tattered elder care safety net, and families overburdened with caregiving responsibilities, while the former arises from our intensely hierarchical workplaces. In collapsing all this loneliness into one, single epidemic, however, Murthy comes to solutions that read more like spiritual self-help for the workplace than major social reforms.

Even if we are more alone and feel lonelier than we did a generation ago, trying to reverse this trend through self help at work or at home won’t be enough to solve problems that stem from the very way we structure our society—especially the way we work and live.  If we want to solve it, it’s going to take a multiprong approach that takes the social inequality those structures produce seriously. Because just as individuals’ webs of relationships are unique, their experiences of being alone might be as well.

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Haley Swenson is the editor of the Better Life Lab at Slate and an ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow.