Skepticism about loneliness epidemic

Over the past few years or so, or at least as back as I have been paying attention, there have been a plethora of viral articles about the supposed ‘loneliness epidemic ‘ in America, or how Americans are lonelier than ever and how this is a major problem. Since Covid, there have been more of these articles than usual.

The supposed ‘loneliness epidemic’ is a big deal and major concern to the ‘intellectual web’, who see it as yet another ‘ill of modernity.’ Both the smart-left and the smart-right are in agreement about the source of this problem and its seriousness, with the blame being placed on modernity, and as a consequence, the declining influence and relevance of social institutions and social trust. There is a desire, by both sides of the aisle, to ‘make institutions great again.’ I am somewhat skeptical that there is such an epidemic or that it is such a big deal that it necessitates endless stories written about it.

One of the fascinating things about economics and the social sciences, is how important the ‘unseen’ is. Much like the Freakonomics apple, which conceals an orange interior, the answer or explanation can sometimes be where you least expect, or is ignored. For example, imagine if someone polled self-reported healthcare satisfaction among inhabitants of 3rd world countries, and compared it to self-reported satisfaction of inhabitants of wealthier nations. The poorer respondents overwhelmingly rate their healthcare as ‘good’, whereas with wealthier nations it is much more mixed.

Does this prove that 3rd-world countries have superior healthcare or have unlocked the secret to affordable healthcare? Not necessarily, because what one must also take into account is, is that people who are dead or seriously ill may not participate in such surveys, so the only people who respond are people who either never got sick or only have mild ailments. Modern healthcare, which is expensive, is much more effective at treating advanced and chronic disease, that may otherwise be fatal in 3rd world countries, so respondents in wealthier countries are probably more inclined to complain about the price, insurance, or receiving care that they perceive as unsatisfactory.

So in regard to loneliness, I think you also have to take into account individual preferences and the role of technology, which are the hidden variables. For example, perhaps people were more gregarious 30-70 years ago because there was no alternative, as smartphones, Netflix, cable TV, and personal computers did not exist, so people had few alternatives to group entertainment, whereas nowadays the technology exists for people to voluntarily disconnect from others while still being entertained. Generations ago, families gathered around to watch TV because TVs were expensive and there were only a limited number of channels and airtime, not because individuals necessarily enjoyed each other’s company.

Contrary to what Robert Putnam may say, bowling leagues, adult team sports, city councils, rotary clubs and other forms of group activity and civic engagement still exist despite technology, but it’s possible that people are just voluntarily choosing to engage in solitary activities instead. It’s not like these things ever went away. A Google search shows many websites and apps for local meet-ups and group events, so it’s not as if people are being deprived of opportunities to socialize, but for whatever reason are choosing not to:

Again, I think this is due to individual preferences and not a ‘social crisis’ or other overly dramatic language that some are framing this as. Maybe smart phones, video games, and Netflix are more enjoyable than bowling or coed sports. The tendency of pundits and the media to call everything a crisis means that when there is an actual crisis, we are less inclined to believe them.

Moreover , people willingly and voluntarily pay a hefty a premium to isolate themselves from other people, whether it is private planes, secluded vacation homes, ‘man caves’, noise-cancelling headphones, first and business class plane tickets, stadium box seats, etc.

A common argument is that ‘humans social animals,’ and to an extent I think this is true, but unlike other animals, humans are unique in that they are endowed with the ability to form imaginations and abstractions, which means they can derive meaning and purpose from experiences that replicate human interactions and experiences (such as reading a book or watching TV) without having to actually be with other people.

Declining social trust and increased isolation may also have the added benefits of reducing crime and civil unrest. High incidents of divorce and domestic violence, suggests that many people either want to be alone or would be better off alone. So when one adds the economic and mental toll/cost of loneliness, one must also subtract the cost of unwanted or negative social interactions, which is the hidden variable. Maybe if loneliness means fewer incidents of domestic violence and fewer divorces, it is a worthwhile trade off.