‘The Lonely Century’: Five myths about loneliness

  • Len Maisch, 85, with Sophie, a 7-year-old springer spaniel, at the Kensington health care facility on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 in Redondo Beach, California. Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS

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The Washington Post
Published: 1/12/2021 5:29:57 PM

Lots of people are lonely these days. Months of stay-at-home orders and other limits on face-to-face contact are taking their toll.

But even before the pandemic introduced us to terms like “social distancing,” loneliness was a defining condition of the 21st century: More than a fifth of U.S. adults said in a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation survey that they “often” or “always” felt lonely, lacking in companionship, left out or isolated.

Britain even appointed a minister for loneliness three years ago to confront the problem. But why did we become so lonely? Who is most afflicted? And what harms does it cause? Misconceptions persist around each of these questions; here are five of the most common.

Myth No. 1: The elderly are the loneliest generation

Articles on loneliness often focus on the risk for older people: “Baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history, and the resulting loneliness is a looming public health threat,”observed the Wall Street Journal in 2018.

And the pandemic has brought a fresh wave of commentary about how older people are particularly affected by shutdown orders. In April, ABC News referred to loneliness as “the unspoken COVID-19 toll on the elderly.”

But while the elderly are lonelier than the average person, it’s actually the young whom study after study reveals as the loneliest. A 2018 analysis by Britain’s Office for National Statistics, for example, found that 10% of Britons ages 16 to 24 reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 3% of those 65 and older. Among that younger cohort, a higher share than in any other group also felt lonely “some of the time”: 23%.

Polls in the United States reveal a similar picture. In a 2019 YouGov survey, roughly 1 in 5 millennials reported having no friends at all. That was significantly higher than the proportion of Generation Xers or baby boomers who said they were friendless.

Myth No. 2: Loneliness is mainly a mental health problem

A 2019 post on loneliness on the British website Mind mentions only its influence on mental well-being: “Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.”

In 2015, a Psychology Today columnist similarly limited discussion of the effects of loneliness to mental disorders, linking it to depression, social anxiety, addiction and hoarding.

But loneliness has dire physical implications, too. If you are lonely or socially isolated, according to one review of 23 studies, you have a 29% higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% higher chance of stroke. A study of elderly people in group-living facilities in Amsterdam found that those who felt lonely had a 64% greater risk of developing clinical dementia.

Overall, if you are lonely or socially isolated, you are almost 30% more likely to die prematurely than if you have companionship; statistically, loneliness is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There’s even evidence that loneliness of limited duration can lead to an early death — potentially bad news for those of us living through the pandemic.

Myth No. 3: Open-plan offices deepen relations with co-workers

“Open plan offices foster team spirit and create a social space,” explains the British firm Workspace Design and Build, supposedly leading to more collaboration and greater productivity. Meanwhile, in the Harvard Business Review, three University of Michigan researchers argue that even people who choose not to interact with others in open-office co-working spaces prefer them because “there is the potential for interactions when they desire or need them.”

Claims such as these are commonplace. But a study in the Academy of Management Review found that when people in open-plan offices did speak to one another, they tended to do so for shorter periods and more superficially, and they often censored themselves.

What’s more, a Harvard Business School study that tracked office workers at two companies that shifted from cubicles to open plans found that the new architecture — far from enhancing sociability — seemed to “trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw” from colleagues. People opted for email and messaging instead of talking, contributing to a feeling of isolation.

This alienation is even worse if your office has bought into the idea of “hot desking” — having employees use whatever desk is available on a given day. With no place of one’s own, nowhere to hang family photos, and with a different “neighbor” every day, hot-desking workers feel an intense “sense of isolation,” one ethnographer of the practice observed.

Myth No. 4: City dwellers are less lonely than rural residents

“The challenge of dealing with loneliness is particularly acute in rural areas,” explains Apolitical, a website for civil servants. “Though tighter-knit communities can help reduce isolation, spread-out rural populations also make it easier for isolated people ... to lose human contact almost entirely.”

Making the case that rural areas are more alienating than cities, a New York magazine writer leaned on a striking correlation: “States with the worst suicide rates are the least dense.” (Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Alaska have the highest rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

But loneliness strikes people wherever they live. The General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of American adults, has several questions that probe issues related to loneliness, and it finds little if any difference among urban, suburban and rural residents.

For instance, asked how often in the past four weeks they felt they had lacked companionship, 45% of urban residents, 45% of suburbanites and 49% of rural residents said “never.” Thirteen percent of city dwellers said they “often” or “very often” felt they lacked companionship; the comparable figure for suburban residents was 11%, and for rural denizens 14%. The hectic pace and anonymity of city life, it appears, at least partly offset the advantage cities bring in terms of proximity to other people.

Myth No. 5: Loneliness is a Western phenomenon

A commentator in the Times of India in 2018 decried “the Western world’s loneliness epidemic.” And in an interview about loneliness, former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy told Vox that culture bore much of the blame: “In many Western societies, there’s a lot more freedom to be who you are and a more open embrace of different identities. But the structures that ensure that people feel like they’re part of a community are limited.”

There is evidence that the more individualistic a society is, the more lonely its citizens tend to be; and there is considerable correlation between “individualism” and the West: The United States and Britain both rank very high on that score.

But loneliness is a public health crisis in the non-Western world, too. Nationally representative surveys find that roughly 28% of Chinese over 65 feel lonely — with some indications that the figure is rising (as is an increasingly individualistic mind-set). In India, a national survey in 2017 of 15,000 older citizens, conducted by the Agewell Foundation, found that 48% were lonely; the figure was even higher in cities.

In Japan, loneliness is also making headlines. There the proportion of crimes committed by people over age 60 has quadrupled over the past two decades — and observers believe that social isolation is a key driver of the trend. Some elderly commit minor offenses such as petty shoplifting specifically so they will end up in jail, because they have no family or friends to support them.

Hertz, an economist, is the author of the new book “The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart.”


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