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Level of Loneliness About the Same as 70 Years Ago

(p. 8) . . . is loneliness, as many political officials and pundits are warning, a growing "health epidemic"?

. . .

The main evidence for rising isolation comes from a widely reported sociology journal article claiming that in 2004, one in four Americans had no one in their life they felt they could confide in, compared with one in 10 during the 1980s. But that study turned out to be based on faulty data, and other research shows that the portion of Americans without a confidant is about the same as it has long been. Although one of the authors has distanced himself from the paper (saying, "I no longer think it's reliable"), scholars, journalists and policymakers continue to cite it.

The other data on loneliness are complicated and often contradictory, in part because there are so many different ways of measuring the phenomenon. But it's clear that the loneliness statistics cited by those who say we have an epidemic are outliers. For example, one set of statistics comes from a study that counted as lonely people who said they felt "left out" or "isolated," or "lacked companionship" -- even just "some of the time." That's an exceedingly low bar, and surely not one we'd want doctors or policymakers to use in their work.

One reason we need to be careful about how we measure and respond to loneliness is that, as the University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo argues, an occasional and transitory feeling of loneliness can be healthy and productive. It's a biological signal to ourselves that we need to build stronger social bonds.

Professor Cacioppo has spent much of his career documenting the dangers of loneliness. But it's notable that he relies on more measured statistics in his own scientific papers than the statistics described above. One of his articles, from last year, reports that around 19 percent of older Americans said they had felt lonely for much of the week before they were surveyed, and that in Britain about 6 percent of adults said they felt lonely all or most of the time. Those are worrisome numbers, but they are quite similar to the numbers reported in Britain in 1948, when about 8 percent of older adults said they often or always felt lonely, and to those in previous American studies as well.

For the full commentary, see:

ERIC KLINENBERG. "Is Loneliness a Health Epidemic?" The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, February 11, 2018): 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 9, 2018.)

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