Is There a ‘Loneliness Epidemic’? Possibly not

Over there past few years, especially since 2016 or so, I have observed intense discussion and debate regarding the existence a so-called ‘loneliness epidemic in America, but also around the rest of the world. I have seen dozens of articles go viral about how Americans are lonelier than ever and how big of a crisis this is. A Google search would seem to suggest that this is a real phenomenon, and that people are lonelier than ever due to factors such as technology and changing societal norms, and that this is a major health risk.

But does a loneliness epidemic really exist? Maybe not. It is a popular narrative, as part of the shared narrative held by both liberals and conservatives alike, of being skeptical of modernity, and this purported loneliness epidemic is seen as an ill-effect of modernity. As the narrative goes, popularized by sociologist Robert Puntman’s famous 1995 essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” and 2000 book by the same title, the decline of bowling leagues over the past half century tracks the decline of civic participation in America, and that this is a threat to democratic values.

Bowling and other physical group activities has been, to some extent, replaced by group online activities such as collaborative online role-playing games and services such as X-Box live. People may be physically separated, but they are together online. The town hall debates and meetings have moved to Facebook Twitter. In regard to the decline of democratic values and civic participation, I think the realization is setting in, by both sides of the aisle, that democracy in and of itself is not an unalloyed good, and that voting and other acts of civic participation are largely ritualistic or symbolic gestures to create the illusion of control and participation at the individual level. There a huge disconnect between the will of voters and the outcome (voting for ‘X’ and getting ‘Y’), and the outcome has already been decided in advance, as if deterministically, regardless who who votes for what or who wins.

Consider the ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the 2008 financial crisis, or the 2020 pandemic, as recent examples of massive government overreach that individuals in no way had any say in. During the pandemic, thousands of small and medium-sized businesses were forced to close, and individuals were forced to quarantine and social distance, without anyone putting it to vote. It just happened, literally overnight in some cases. How many people would have voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars lasting so long and costing so much money, or the 2008 and 2020 bailouts? In other cases, judges can override votes. A notable example of this is a federal California judge overriding voter-approved Proposition-8, which would have banned same-sex marriage in California.

But don’t people have more power on a local level, such as mayoral elections and city councils? Not necessarily, as the Covid-19 shutdowns showed, which were enacted by mayors and governors without approval of voters. Businesses and individuals who resisted the shutdowns were arrested and or fined, and their businesses raided by police.

Also, discussed in a Feb. 2020 Freakonomics episode “Is There Really a ‘Loneliness Epidemic’?,” being alone and loneliness are not the same thing, and that living with someone does not necessarily prevent loneliness: The high incidence of divorce and domestic abuse in America, especially during the quarantines and lockdowns, suggests that many people are either temperamentally/psychologically not suited to being with other people for long stretches of time, or that there are diminishing returns to togetherness.

MURTHY: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think just because you live alone does not mean that you’re consigned to a life of loneliness. Just because you live alone doesn’t mean that you’re somehow living an inferior life. People live alone for many different reasons and a lot of times because they choose to live alone. But I do think, like with all decisions we make in our life, that there are upsides and downsides.

KLINENBERG: I’ve interviewed many people who had lived with a romantic partner and were now living alone. And they said to me, one after the next, “As lonely as I sometimes feel when I’m on my own, there’s nothing lonelier than living with the wrong person. There’s no feeling more lonely than having a domestic partner with whom one was once intimate, with whom once had a feeling of trust and connection, and coming home and feeling disconnected from that person.”

It is possible to be alone without suffering from the possible psychological effects of being deprived of human interaction. Maybe the epidemic can be explained as simply as people are choosing to be alone, and that the there has always been a certain percentage of people who would be considered ‘lonely’ (around 25%), but it only seems like an epidemic and a huge concern because the media has suddenly begun to pay more attention to it, not that this is a new development.

From the podcast, it is also possible technology has progressed to the point in which people have the luxury of choosing to be alone:

What I learned in Chicago, which the demographers in my field had not really called attention to, which cultural historians had not paid attention to, but which is an incredible fact about the world, is that for the entire history of our species, we have lived in groups. Out of necessity. We needed to protect each other. We needed to get food for each other. We needed to divide labor. And this amazing thing starts to happen in the early 20th century and to really take off in the 1950s, which is that for the first time in the history of our species, people start to settle down on their own and to live alone for long periods of time. And now we’ve gotten to the point where, in the most kind of affluent societies on earth, there are enormous numbers of people living alone.

This is an important point. When pundits attribute/blame the loneliness epidemic to smartphones and other technology, they fail to take into account individual preferences. It may not be that smartphones make people lonely or smartphone usage is symptomatic of loneliness, but that people on their own volition are choosing smartphones instead of group activities. A reason why families in the ’50s and ’60s had to gather around to watch TV or listen to the radio, was because a TV cost a lot of money relative to wages (whereas nowadays you can buy a 64-inch TV for only $500), so there was no other option. Technology has given people the option to be alone, whereas in the past people were more gregarious, but possibly out of necessity instead of choice. The question to ask is, if people from the ’50s and ’60s had access to today’s technologies, would they keep their old routines, or would they choose the smart phones and Netflix to in-person socializing.