In his 2008 book, “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a small town called Roseto, located about 30 miles north of Allentown, in the foothills of Eastern Pennsylvania.
For years, Roseto primarily comprised of Italian immigrants who lived in multigenerational homes. As Gladwell wrote, the town made national news in the 1950s for its unprecedentedly low rates of heart disease relative to those of neighboring towns with more American traditions.
Social scientists were puzzled. The people of Roseto didn’t eat particularly healthily, often cooking with lard instead of olive oil. Meals typically consisted of cheese and fried meatballs, foods known to raise cholesterol levels. Many townspeople smoked cigars, worked in foundries and struggled with obesity.
But their emotional health flourished. As a close-knit group, the Rosetans seldom felt socially isolated. For years, the town was defined by friendships, social activity and support for one another. When someone was down, a loved one or neighbor was there to pick them up.
In other words: The Rosetans were rarely lonely.
“You had to appreciate the idea that community — the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with — has a profound effect on who we are,” wrote Gladwell.
Loneliness is more than just a fleeting feeling of sadness that subsides within a few hours or even a few days. It is a subjective response to how a person feels a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual levels of social connection.
Roseto’s sense of community in the mid-20th century represents a stark contrast to today’s America — a country mired in loneliness.
Many Americans who deal with loneliness struggle to establish relationships. They might lack companionship and experience long periods of isolation. Even people with a large circle of friends and an active social life can feel a deep sense of detachment.
“Loneliness is a general feeling of aloneness, whether others are present or not,” Dr. Chrysalis Wright, associate lecturer for the psychology department at the University of Central Florida, told The Recovery Village. “Sometimes people can experience feelings of loneliness when around others.”
Today, Americans are lonelier than they’ve ever been. This contagious feeling has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, as people of all ages and backgrounds struggle to find a sense of belonging.
Studies Paint Picture of Loneliness in America
In 2018, the health insurer Cigna conducted a survey intended to measure the prevalence of loneliness in the United States. Among 20,000 adults surveyed nationwide, nearly half reported either sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.
About 53 percent of survey respondents said that they have meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis. These interactions might include spending quality time with loved ones or having extended conversations with close friends. A lack of communication with others can contribute to loneliness.
A 2018 study published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics showed that more people reported feeling moderately or severely lonely in their late-20s, mid-50s and late 80s. The report did not indicate why these individuals were lonely.
Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior author of the report, opined that some people in their late-20s deal with high levels of stress when comparing themselves to peers who might be more successful. In their mid-50s, individuals typically experience a decline in their health. And people in their 80s might struggle with financial issues and significant health problems, such as diabetes or depression.
Research shows that older Americans are susceptible to loneliness. A 2012 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that loneliness was a predictor of functional declines, such as a reduction in walking or climbing stairs, and death among people ages 60 or older.
However, older adults are not necessarily the loneliest demographic. The Cigna study showed that people ages 18 to 22 — known as Generation Z — were more likely to report feeling lonely than were older generations. This discovery coincides with multiple reports unearthing the rising levels of depression among young people.
Each year, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health examine trends in substance use and mental illness among Americans ages 12 or older. The most recent report, released in September 2018, found that 13.1 percent of adults ages 18 to 25 reported experiencing a major depressive episode (MDE) in the year prior to the survey. During this same timeframe, just 4.7 percent of people ages 50 or older reported experiencing an MDE.
While not a diagnosable mental illness, loneliness is closely associated with mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and depression. People grappling with a psychological disorder experience an increased risk of being lonely.
Military veterans are also vulnerable to feeling lonely, which has contributed to their high rates of depression. According to a 2018 study funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, loneliness is associated with high levels of depression and suicidal thoughts among veterans.
Does Social Media Contribute to Loneliness?
According to researchers at Cigna, social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness. The report showed that adults who reported heavily using social media were only marginally more lonely than were people who reported never using social media.
However, other reports have concluded that engaging in screen time, such as perusing social media, can harm a person’s mental health. A 2017 study by San Diego State University suggested that this screen time can contribute to depression and suicide among teens ages 13 to 18.
“We know that social media can strengthen relationships with people that we already know in real life,” said Wright. “But it can also harm those relationships.”
Wright explained that a college student might realize that they were not invited to a social gathering upon seeing photographs on social media of their friends at the event. As a result, the student may feel left out and harbor feelings of rejection that could result in loneliness.
“Comparing ourselves to others on social media can also lead to feelings of loneliness if we believe that we are greatly different from others and if we can’t find a group that is like us,” added Wright.
In addition to social media exposure, a traumatic experience such as the death of a spouse can lead to loneliness. Bullying, sexual assault and domestic violence are forms of abuse that can change the brain, impede a person’s ability to communicate with others and lead to long-term loneliness.
Some individuals who feel severely lonely may harbor fears of rejection that prevent them from establishing connections with others. They might deal with social anxiety that results in their craving the company of friends but immediately wanting them to leave.
Are Married Couples Less Lonely?
Relationships typically begin with a spark. Couples usually spend much time together, sharing stories and laughs along the way. But some individuals in committed relationships tend to grow apart over time. They might spend more time away from each other, or struggle to start or maintain conversations.
“If you feel different or disconnected from your partner, rather than interconnected, you may feel lonely,” said Wright.
Many married couples grapple with loneliness. A 2012 report published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that 62.5 percent of married or partnered couples living with each other who were age 60 or older reported experiencing loneliness. For many of these individuals, mental illness did not contribute to their loneliness.
However, the Cigna report indicated that people who live with others are less likely than individuals who live alone to report being lonely. According to the survey, 2 in 5 survey respondents reported sometimes or always felt that their relationships are not meaningful, which can contribute to loneliness.
As Wright explained, people can develop feelings of loneliness if they become overwhelmed in their responsibilities, such as child-rearing duties, while feeling that their partner isn’t sufficiently helping. Conversely, couples that complete tasks together and find ways to sustain their connection with each other decrease their chances of feeling lonely.
The Effects of Loneliness
According to a 2017 report by Harvard University, loneliness has a risk factor similar to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it can shorten a person’s lifespan by eight years. Poor quality of life, such as a sedentary lifestyle, can exacerbate the complications of loneliness.
A separate Harvard report indicated that loneliness can harm physical health, including brain function. Feeling lonely can also increase stress levels and inflammation, which can raise a person’s risk of developing arthritis, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes.
Additional effects of loneliness include:
- Feelings of hollowness or emptiness
- Antisocial behavior
- A reduction in self-care, such as bathing or grooming
- Sleep problems
- Cognitive decline
- Cardiovascular disease and stroke
- The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to substance use and addiction. In an attempt to numb their psychological distress, many people who feel severely lonely turn to drugs or alcohol. They might engage in these substances to experience a euphoria that allows them to temporarily escape their negative emotions.
However, using drugs or alcohol to reduce negative thoughts associated with loneliness can increase a person’s tolerance for certain substances. Over time, as their tolerance increases, they may begin to crave more drugs or alcohol to get through their day. Before long, they can develop a substance use disorder.
Addiction is a chronic brain disorder. The neurological disease changes the way people think, behave and express emotions. In many cases, individuals with a severe substance use disorder compulsively seek drugs despite knowing the health, social and legal consequence.
Individuals with a drug or alcohol problem can contact a rehab facility, such as The Recovery Village, to learn how addiction treatment can help them better manage their substance use issues.
The prevention and treatment of loneliness are contingent on a person’s specific needs. For example, a child who struggles to make friends may have different needs when compared with an adult whose spouse recently died.
Reducing loneliness requires time and dedication. To manage loneliness, people must first recognize that a problem exists. They could then take steps to express their negative emotions through art, music or writing. This can serve as a cathartic experience that can lead to positive thoughts and behaviors.
Wright says that changing maladaptive thinking patterns can help solve loneliness. Often seen in people with a social anxiety disorder, maladaptive behaviors are those used to cope with stress in certain situations. Maladaptive behaviors may include passive communication, angry outbursts or substance use.
A mental health counselor can help individuals change maladaptive thinking and other behavioral problems that contribute to loneliness. Evidence-based therapy techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can allow people to reframe their negative thinking patterns into positive thoughts.
In addition to changing maladaptive behaviors, Wright says that people can make efforts to reduce loneliness by improving their social skills, broadening their social circle and making themselves available for social interaction.
Engaging in hobbies can produce opportunities for social interaction. Individuals who enjoy playing sports can join a recreational league, where they might meet people with similar interests. College students can participate in extracurricular activities, such as academic teams or culture clubs, or community service to meet people.
“Additionally, rather than viewing differences between yourself and others as a bad thing, view differences as something to be appreciated,” said Wright. “It means that you are unique. That is not a bad thing.”
Simple tasks can ease the loneliness epidemic. Spend quality time with a significant other. Talk to a friend who may be experiencing stress. Compliment a co-worker for their performance or start a conversation with a neighbor or a stranger.
“And, smile. Even if you aren’t happy, smile,” said Wright. “By changing your outer facial expression you may also change your internal feelings of loneliness.”
As the Rosetans proved, spending quality time with loved ones and supporting friends and neighbors can go a long way toward reducing loneliness, establishing positive feelings and improving health.