The Myth of the Loneliness Epidemic

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On May 1, 2023, I woke up to a news headline I’d been yearning to see for years: We Have Become a Lonely Nation. It’s Time to Fix That. It was a guest article by the US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in the New York Times. In it, he announced his new report to tackle the loneliness epidemic, which he later declared a “public health crisis.” News outlets picked it up and ran with it, regurgitating various dramatic aspects of loneliness.

At the time, I felt beyond grateful to see this buzz around loneliness — mostly because I finally felt heard.

You see, I had been experiencing my own little loneliness epidemic. For most of my adult life, I rarely “clicked” with people. Loneliness grew inside me like rampant weeds. But the worst part was that I couldn’t understand my feelings of loneliness. I mean, how the hell are you supposed to identify, let alone voice, a phenomenon that is so stigmatized, so rarely discussed?

Today, loneliness is still a big part of my life. Yet, after many years of feeling lonely, researching, and writing about loneliness, I arrived at a perspective that may seem counterintuitive:

The loneliness epidemic doesn’t exist. It’s a myth, an urban legend.

This is not to say that loneliness doesn’t exist. Of course it does. And it poses many deep-cutting challenges. But having this discussion under the banner of an “epidemic,” “health crisis,” or even a “plague” conveys a highly limited, simplistic, and overly negative image of loneliness. The media tend to capitalize on this dark side of loneliness to capture people’s attention, but often without putting the terms in sufficient context. Not to mention, at this point, there’s no robust data to classify loneliness as an epidemic.

Thus, declaring loneliness an “epidemic” oversimplifies and sensationalizes the problem, which might even worsen it.

Below, I’m going to support this contrarian view with extensive research, simple logic, and my own experience with feeling lonely. Whether you agree or disagree and whether you feel lonely or not, I hope that my case can help you gain a fresh perspective on loneliness.

1. What is the loneliness epidemic anyway?

Perhaps the best way to begin this discussion is to acknowledge that we’re dealing with two complex terms.

Loneliness by itself is already tricky to grasp. As a field of study, it’s also relatively new. The term loneliness (as we know it today) started appearing in the English language around 1800. And the first time loneliness was somewhat successfully measured was in 1978. So, the scientific community is still in the early stages of understanding loneliness.

This unfamiliarity also shows in colloquial language. When discussing loneliness, we tend to lump it together with related but distinctly separate concepts—like isolation, solitude, and aloneness. We often use these words synonymously but underestimate the implicit weight that each of them carries.

For the record, here’s the difference between these often mushed-together terms:

  • Loneliness: A distressing emotional experience that occurs when we perceive our social connections as less fulfilling than we would like.
  • Aloneness/being alone: The factual state of being without company (no matter our emotional state, needs, or social networks).
  • Solitude: The experience of spending time alone, which can be nourishing for many people.
  • Social isolation: An objective lack of social contact maintained by physical, practical, or psychological barriers.

This is not just nitpicking at words. The blurred lines between these concepts make it harder to contextualize information on loneliness and, at worst, they confuse our feelings.

I think this is part of the reason why I used to dread spending time alone, especially in public places. Whenever I went to a restaurant, the cinema, or the city park, I feared that others would perceive me as a “loner,” the type of person no one wants to hang out with. And as a result, I would actually feel lonely in these settings.

I confused aloneness with loneliness. Solitude wasn’t even part of my vocabulary.

Okay, so loneliness taken by itself is already quite dizzying. When we add the word “epidemic” to the mix, though, the emerging concept becomes stratospherically hazy. Collective understanding ceases. As the authors of a paper called When is an Epidemic an Epidemic? said:

The word “epidemic’’ is an emotionally charged term. It means different things to different people, and professionals using the term may have an intended meaning quite different from the public’s perception of the word.

Cambridge Dictionary, for instance, provides the following two definitions for epidemic:

  1. “the appearance of a particular disease in a large number of people at the same time”
  2. “a particular problem that seriously affects many people at the same time”

Which definition of an epidemic should we adopt when discussing loneliness? One could argue that, out of context, it’s oh-so-clear that we ought to understand the loneliness epidemic as the second type: Epidemic equals problem. Simple, right?

Alas, it’s not so easy.

Different people will have different associations with the words “loneliness” and “epidemic” — and thus, they’ll also interpret the joint term “loneliness epidemic” in many different colors and flavors. The problem is that modern loneliness headlines mostly prime us to see darkness and taste bitterness (e.g., “Loneliness: the silent killer”). As we continue to move out of the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may be particularly susceptible to mistaking loneliness for a rapidly spreading disease, a plague of modernity.

It’s all the more frustrating that the Surgeon General’s report doesn’t define or specify the word “epidemic.” (In fact, the term appears only in the title, footers, and acknowledgments.) Mainstream media rarely care to oblige, either.

“So what?” one may ask.

“People will make up their own definitions of the loneliness epidemic. Isn’t the main point that we create awareness around the issue?”

Well, awareness around loneliness is critical, yes. But using the terminology of an epidemic doesn’t create awareness; it stokes panic. In fact, there’s reason to believe that this recklessness around the language of loneliness creates an undesired side effect: fear.

2. How fear about loneliness creates loneliness

How do you feel while reading headlines like: “Loneliness is the new silent killer, and as deadly as smoking”? Or: “Americans are lonely and it’s killing them”?

When I was at a very lonely point in my life and first read headlines like these, I lost it. I panicked. I couldn’t stop thinking that there was something seriously wrong with me, that I never should’ve felt lonely in the first place, and that I had to “cure” this problem, this disease, of loneliness immediately.

But loneliness is not a disease to be cured, nor a problem to be solved, nor a war to be won. Instead, loneliness is a complex set of emotions that deserve to be investigated. In fact, the genealogy of loneliness suggests that feeling lonely is not really our fault but a reasonable response to living in a highly individualized, modernized, and secularized society. And yet, when we put loneliness in the context of epidemics and deadly disorders, we pathologize and exacerbate it.

We wrongly take the blame.

I can’t help but wonder how the “devastating loneliness epidemic” sounds to people who already struggle with their mental health but never considered loneliness a possibility — or, say, to people who have a healthy relationship with feeling lonely. Well, loneliness might become yet another thing to fear and worry about.

“Fear about loneliness creates loneliness,” the historian Fay Bound Alberti writes in her book A Biography of Loneliness.

Alberti’s point is that, for the past centuries, we’ve been framing loneliness in a particular way — as a fear-driven, crippling, and distressing sensation. This is highly unusual because loneliness has many productive aspects, too. For instance, many psychologists and neuroscientists argue that loneliness developed as an evolutionary adaptation to incentivize and strengthen the biggest asset of the human species: social ties. Likewise, many artists have used their loneliness as a well of creativity and insight.

It’s tricky to grasp in a polarized world but something can be good and bad — especially a complex emotion like loneliness.

Yet, framing loneliness in the light (or rather, shade) of an epidemic doesn’t precisely encourage opening up about it, let alone tackling the real problems and roots of loneliness. Quite the opposite: loneliness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Buzzwords like “epidemic,” “plague,” and “deadly” that effectively frame loneliness as a mass murderer may actually turn loneliness into an invisible, spooky, deadly virus. In this sense, loneliness may become something many of us try to escape. And as a result, the loneliness stigma could worsen — and with that, the emotional suppression of feeling lonely.

No one wants to get infected by the loneliness virus, after all.

So, if the fear about loneliness is a co-creator of modern loneliness, we must ask ourselves an important question: how widespread and harmful is loneliness really?

3. A ghostly rise: Are we lonelier than ever?

Scrolling through mainstream articles, it seems almost a given that loneliness is at an all-time high. If we are to believe the current debate, we live in a cluster bomb explosion of loneliness, and it’s only a matter of time before we feel the devastating blast impact.

What hides behind these claims?

There are two types of statistics people often cite to back up the rise of loneliness: the friendship recession and the rise of living alone. The arguments go like this, respectively:

  • Decline of friends: In 1990, only 3% of Americans said they had no close friends. In 2021, this number had increased to 12%. We feel lonely when we have no friends. Therefore, loneliness must’ve grown.
  • Rise of aloneness: Over the past decades, the number of single households has soared. People also spend more time alone. We feel lonely when we’re alone. Therefore, loneliness must’ve grown.

The Surgeon General’s report, for instance, cites a study examining the various trends in how people spend their social time. These trends included social isolation (time spent alone), social engagement (time spent with others), and companionship (leisure time spent with others).

The study observed an increase in all these trends.

Now, these developments undoubtedly raise their own questions and problems, like the loss of health support provided by friends. But in many ways, they’re poor predictors of loneliness. The primary reason is what we’ve seen earlier: loneliness and aloneness are distinct concepts. How people objectively spend their time says little about their subjective feelings of loneliness.

Aloneness needn’t imply loneliness — several studies have shown this repeatedly.

One recent study is particularly interesting. In it, the researchers looked at the relationship between time spent alone and self-reported loneliness. What they found was that although aloneness and loneliness are linked, this link is very weak. That is to say, if you know how much time a random person spends alone, the chances that you can correctly guess their loneliness levels are nearly negligible.

If anything, the link between loneliness and aloneness is a flat U-shape.

So essentially, it’s only at the extremes that time spent alone affects loneliness. But once again, this effect is weak. What the graph below shows is that a person who spends 50% of their time alone is expected to rate their loneliness as a 2/10. By contrast, when a person spends 95% of their time alone, they’re expected to report a loneliness level of 3/10.

The relationship between loneliness and time spent alone is a flat U-shape. (Source)

So, despite popular belief, the factor “time spent alone” is not that significant in the loneliness debate — especially when we compare it with other factors related to loneliness, like povertypoor health, and genes.

Besides, what I find far more interesting here is that spending too little time alone has a similar link to people’s loneliness as spending too much time alone. And yet, I haven’t seen a headline that cites socializing as the culprit of modern loneliness.

The irony is that, like many others, I find the loneliness of being around people far more taxing than that of being alone. During many lonely periods, I would frantically go on dates and social events—only to feel even lonelier afterward.

So, is there a connection between time spent alone and loneliness? Yes, but it’s feeble and only shows at the extremes. Therefore, we should be cautious when using the rise of living alone and the friendship recession to legitimize a loneliness epidemic.

The crucial point here is that loneliness doesn’t care about the numbers — how many friends you have or how much time you spend with them. Loneliness cares about perception. What ultimately matters is the quality of the connections with yourself and others.

If you don’t feel connected, you’re not connected.

4. Loneliness, where art thou? The many issues with measuring loneliness

When I first reviewed these studies and statistics, I arrived at a question that may seem overly obvious: Why don’t people just quote the “direct” studies on loneliness? You know, the statistics of self-reported loneliness levels? Where is the one graph that neatly traces back loneliness to its origin?

Turns out, that’s not so easy.

For starters, there aren’t any clear, coherent studies that have traced loneliness levels long enough to arrive at significant findings. As the authors of the 2022 meta-review Loneliness across space and time say:

Data on loneliness from representative samples from the past century are almost non-existent.

Now, there are many explanations for this, including that loneliness is still a young field of study. But the main one is that loneliness is extremely difficult to measure. Again, loneliness is entirely subjective. A person can feel lonely when they’re alone just as much as when they’re around family, friends, or strangers.

Yes, we can try to measure loneliness with questionnaires like the UCLA Loneliness Scale (sample question: “How often do you feel left out?”). And the good news here is that these scales are becoming increasingly promising at detecting (subconscious) feelings of loneliness.

However, a few substantial problems remain.

For one thing, many loneliness scales lack consistency and repeatability (aka test-retest reliability). For another, not all population groups respond to questions about loneliness in the same way (aka measurement invariance). For example, there’s a good chance that a 65-year-old retiree and a 20-year-old graduate student will have vastly different perceptions of a question like “How often do you feel left out?”.

One meta-analysis about the most prominent loneliness scales describes their evidence of test-retest reliability as “largely lacking” and that of measurement invariance as “rather scarce.” It also criticizes that many loneliness scales include questions that don’t even capture loneliness, thus distorting the test results.

What adds to the confusion is that many statistics still don’t use the same baseline for feeling lonely. For instance, one statistic might count people as lonely when they feel lonely “sometimes.” Another statistic might only classify people as lonely who feel lonely “often.”

How can you epidemize something that’s barely even measurable?

5. Look closer: The illusion of the loneliness epidemic

At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the numbers we do have about loneliness contradict themselves.

One study proclaims an increase in loneliness, another its decline. One study says the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened loneliness, another says the pandemic didn’t impact loneliness and actually improved social support.

Journalists seem to cherry-pick these studies depending on their desired message. I’ve never seen them cited together, which is a shame. I realize it may seem confusing at first — the finding that loneliness increases and declines simultaneously — but it might finally emphasize the multifaceted, subjective character of loneliness.

Lest we forget: it’s not necessarily uncommon that some studies contradict themselves. But when several large-scale reviews clash, it should raise some eyebrows about the one-dimensionality of the current loneliness debate. As the authors of Loneliness across space and time say:

[C]ross-temporal meta-analyses currently represent the best available estimates of changes in loneliness over historical time. However, their findings are inconsistent and therefore do not support sweeping claims of a global loneliness epidemic. More methodologically robust research on historical changes in loneliness in diverse populations is needed.(emphasis added)

It seems we have surrendered to the loneliness epidemic at this point, without further questioning. We observe a friendship recession and think it’s loneliness. We see people spending more time alone and think it’s loneliness. We see people investing less time into their community and think it’s loneliness. We see loneliness and think it’s an epidemic.

Full disclosure, I also used to look for loneliness, seeing it everywhere, feeling it everywhere. If so many people feel lonely, I thought, I must certainly feel lonely. But the funny thing is that I’ve experienced the world as a far less alienating place since I stopped buying into the drama of the loneliness epidemic.

So, do we live in a loneliness epidemic?

If we look hard enough, maybe. But as long as the findings remain inconsistent, the pompous claim of a loneliness epidemic lacks ground. Perhaps it’s like one of those illusionary images where, at first, you only see a rabbit. But then you look closer, and you also see a duck. Now you can switch between the two images, and you’ll see what you choose to believe.

Do you see a duck or a rabbit? Do we live in a loneliness epidemic or not? Sometimes, that’s not so simple to answer. (Image source)

But then you might look even closer, and you realize that it’s been far more complicated all along. It’s not a rabbit or a duck. It’s a rabbit and a duck, a duck-rabbit.

The ultimate question is, which version do you choose to shape your worldview?

6. ‘As deadly as 15 cigarettes a day’ — How dangerous is loneliness really?

Hopefully, it has become clear that my goal here is not to downplay loneliness. It’s to create nuance and clarity. If we ever get a grip on loneliness it’ll be because we stopped using panic and sensationalism and started using openness and compassion.

But aside from the supposed epidemic rise of loneliness, there’s another panic-stoking log in the bonfire of this debate. Namely, that loneliness is lethal. It’s the silent killer.

One of the most overused headlines in this regard is that loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Let’s ignore for a minute that the original study never made this claim and merely said that loneliness is “comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality.” Instead, let’s focus on the question that matters:

Can loneliness kill?

Image from page 25 of the Surgeon General’s advisory on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

It’s indisputable that loneliness is linked to several negative health outcomes. As scattered as the loneliness debate may seem, this is where the vast body of research agrees. Feeling lonely can — under specific circumstances — increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Loneliness is also associated with other mental health struggles like depression, thus becoming a gateway for self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Overall, loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by up to 26%.

However, there’s one big caveat when comparing loneliness to other health hazards, like smoking or obesity.

The caveat is the perils above mostly limit themselves to a specific subtype of loneliness: chronic loneliness. The story of chronic loneliness is, again, complex. But the short version is that people who feel intensely lonely over long periods switch into an operating mode of hypervigilance. They become unreasonably aware and critical of their (social) surroundings, scanning them for potential threats while becoming worse at judging them.

The chronically lonely person switches from seeking social connection to self-preservation.

What may historically have evolved as a survival mechanism has dire consequences: chronically lonely people are more stressed, sleep worse, and seek out unhealthy behaviors. It’s a vicious cycle, also known as the loneliness loop.

How many people actually feel chronically lonely is, as we’ve seen, difficult to measure. All we know is that this type of prolonged, severe loneliness is linked to premature mortality. And yet, the causal chain between chronic loneliness and its perils is still unclear. Do people feel more lonely because they are sick, or are they sick because they feel lonely? Both versions are plausible.

My point is, comparing loneliness to smoking cigarettes is not just flawed but also misleading. Of course, we mustn’t underestimate the risks of chronic loneliness — but overestimating them is arguably worse in this emotionally charged debate.

It’s crucial to stress that the risks mainly relate to chronic loneliness, that feeling lonely is a legitimate emotion, and that there are many other types of loneliness that can be healthy and productive.

7. Eskimos of loneliness: How to think more about feeling lonely

While writing and editing these lines, I thought about how I would’ve reacted to reading them when I was at a lonely point in my life. And honestly?

I would’ve felt mad. Mad and not taken seriously.

In a strange way, I used to identify as a victim of the loneliness epidemic, mostly because it gave me a sense of belonging. The realization that many people share the same unspoken condition of loneliness felt weirdly relieving. But in this way, I needed the loneliness epidemic to exist — for without it, part of my collective identity would’ve vanished. And so, when I used to read articles that criticized the loneliness epidemic, they always gave me this bitter aftertaste of “Suck it up,” “Loneliness is not a real problem,” and “Your feelings don’t matter.”

In this light, I reflected on what might’ve helped me grasp the complex phenomenon of loneliness while feeling lonely—without resorting to the “deadly loneliness epidemic.” One of the most effective bits of information I found comes from the historian Fay Bound Alberti.

Alberti argues that we shouldn’t think of loneliness as a single emotion but as an “emotion cluster.” This effectively means that loneliness consists of and gives way to a wide range of emotions. The emotion cluster of loneliness may include uncomfortable emotions like sorrow, anger, shame, resentment, jealousy, and self-pity. But also inspiration, hopefulness, and productive discontentment.

So, while loneliness might feel uncomfortable in the moment, it might retrospectively turn out to be a wake-up call, a silver lining.

It’s not surprising, then, that loneliness — unlike depression or anxiety — has never been classified as a mental disorder in catalogs like the DSM-5. Loneliness is too ambiguous to be classified as a disorder.

The theory of an emotion cluster also provides another hint as to why loneliness has been so difficult to measure: it’s a catch-all. Some people might link their loneliness primarily to an emotion like anger, whereas others connect it to shame and jealousy. Loneliness is a chameleon, a masquerader, a specter.

Ultimately, what this shows (you might notice a theme) is that we need to be more concise and creative with the language of loneliness.

The social scientist Eric Klinenberg once offered a great analogy: loneliness is like snow. The English language only has one word for snow. By contrast, other cultures with a much deeper connection to snow (like Eskimos) have dozens and dozens of words for snow. Snow falling, snow on the ground, thick snow, wet snow, crystalline snow.

Sadly, the current loneliness debate feels like we’re stuck in the Sahara, speculating about the Ice Age. The task that lies ahead of us, then, is not to shout “Snowstorm!” whenever we see a few snowflakes. Our task is to become the Eskimos of loneliness.

We must radically revise our understanding of loneliness. We must differentiate between loneliness and other related terms (being alone, solitude, isolation). We need to de-sensationalize the negative sides of loneliness and explore the hidden gifts of loneliness. And, at the very least, we ought to eliminate words such as “pandemic” and “epidemic” from our vocabulary of loneliness.

We owe it to ourselves.

This article was originally published on Wise & Well.