MEL Magazine

The Loneliness Epidemic Is So Bad, World Leaders Have Been Forced to Intervene

When politicians are staging national interventions to force us to connect with each other — and actually spending real money on the problem — you know it’s a genuine crisis

There are many great things about being a human, but one of the most underappreciated is our need to bond with other humans. The urge to be sociable was hardwired into us long ago, say the evolutionary psychologists, and it’s led to many of our favorite pastimes: laughing at things, gossip, the ability to have face-to-face sex. But it also has a nasty side effect: When the bonding instinct is left hanging — when we’re not getting our regular fix of friendly kudos as a valued fellow member of the species — we run the risk of feeling lonely.

Until recently, loneliness has also been largely underappreciated. It’s an emotional state we’ve all dwelt in at some point of our lives, and it’s so familiar that it’s tempting to overlook it as mundane amid all the other mental health worries currently being given airtime, such as depression and anxiety. Nevertheless, the world is starting to wake up to the serious damage too much alone-time can do. 

Studies have shown that when they get too deeply entrenched and gnaw on our psyche for too long, feelings of loneliness are high risk factors for early death that rank among things like high blood pressure, obesity, alcoholism and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Similarly, loneliness has been closely linked to a range of conditions, including heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s (a grim reality we’ve looked at before, along with why, in younger age categories, these risks are exacerbated for men).

But it gets worse. As if this debilitating flaw in our emotional scaffolding wasn’t unwelcome enough, some of the humans most at risk have had to grow up in England. And take it from one of those, while there are many benefits to being an English-type human (the ingratiating Harry Potter accent, the pastry-based diet, the no-questions-asked, free-to-access healthcare for all), in the specific context of loneliness, it has its own unfortunate downside: Our inability to cope with almost all social situations, which tends to turn everything from accidentally making eye-contact on a bus to asking for no tomatoes in your salad an epic psychodrama of self-doubt and agonizing micro-regrets. 

This customary handwringing is normally interpreted as English ‘reserve’ or ‘coldness,’ but it’s far better explained by the social anthropologist Kate Fox in her 2004 book Watching the English, which spends much of its 400-plus finely crafted pages honing in on “one particular defining characteristic of Englishness — the one I have taken to calling our ‘social dis-ease,’ our inhibited insularity, our chronic social awkwardness, bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia.”

You can see the problem here: A national culture that promotes polite restraint, and which actively fends off and forestalls the forming of relationships between strangers, is one that might as well be inviting loneliness on its population. And at a time when emotional seclusion is increasingly being seen as a crisis in countries around the Western world, perhaps this is what has made English people uniquely sensitive to loneliness as a major health concern.

Ah, Look at All the Lonely People

Of course, loneliness is being recognized by national decision-makers in other parts of the world, too: Some 70 local municipalities, schools and businesses across Denmark have signed up to the country’s National Movement Against Loneliness, an organization that’s been getting isolated Danes together for communal meals since 2016; and in May, New Zealand’s progressive Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled a bold “well-being budget” for her country, which places Kiwis’ mental health among its top five spending priorities.

But it was the British Prime Minister Theresa May who appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness in January 2018, making the fight against isolation officially the business of the central government, to “address the sad reality of modern life.” And it’s the U.K. that’s tasked its public health-care system with a major initiative to tackle the problem. When the new ministerial post was announced — which no one in government thought to call “The Lone Ranger,” which is a great, great shame — it made headlines across the globe, striking a chord with those already grappling with the issue.

“The U.K. very much leads the way,” says Michelle H. Lim, who is scientific chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, a group of universities and non-profit organizations that have joined forces to coordinate research and to influence public policy in Australia. In Britain, she says, the government, charities and institutions that focus on loneliness have already begun to turn debate into serious, concerted action: “They have significant investments in this space, and ‘loneliness’ is a term that’s a little bit more socialized at the moment with the U.K. public. Whereas in Australia, because we haven’t had this level of investment, when we say the word ‘loneliness,’ people go, ‘Oh, that’s not me!’ — even though they might be feeling lonely. They under-report, they don’t identify or they misunderstand.”

According to Lim, a big source of that misunderstanding is people’s tendency to confuse subjective feelings of loneliness with the physical state of social isolation. “You might meet people and be embedded within families, be married, but you might still feel a sense of disconnection from other people,” says Lim, who sees loneliness as more to do with the quality of the relationships people hold than the quantity of people they’re encountering day to day. Not only that, she says, but statistically the two are “only modestly correlated. You can have social isolation but not feel lonely, or you can feel lonely and not be socially isolated.”

All of which might partially account for the staggering statistics around self-reported loneliness that have been surfacing in recent years. The U.K. government’s intervention was prompted by a report published in 2017 by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness — a body that was originally set up by the Member of Parliament who was tragically murdered by a far-right terrorist in the run-up to 2016’s Brexit vote. 

In the course of its research, the commission found that more than 9 million people, which is around 14 percent of the U.K. population, said they felt lonely either “often” or “always.” In the U.S., meanwhile, a 2018 survey of more than 20,000 Americans found that 46 percent reported “sometimes or always feeling alone,” and that “Generation Z (adults ages 18 to 22) and millennials (adults ages 23 to 37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.” 

While there’s been little so far in the formulation of a coordinated policy at the federal level in the U.S., former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has long been vocal about the challenge this poses to public health in the U.S., asserting in an article for Harvard Business Review, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes. It was loneliness.”

Does It Worry You to Be Alone?

Although the current focus on isolation is often described in the media as “the loneliness epidemic,” Robin Hewings, Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research for the U.K.’s Campaign to End Loneliness, warns that for a subjective, self-reported experience like loneliness, “it’s not very easy to make comparisons across time, and it’s not obvious that it’s getting worse.” 

While he acknowledges that aging populations mean that there are likely to be a greater number of elderly people around who are suffering from isolation than in previous decades, he also points out that when you look at the percentages of those affected, the trends are harder to discern. “There was some work done in the late 1940s, which would seem to suggest a not dissimilar level to today. This is right at the speculative end,” he cautions, “but imagine the world in the late 1940s: On the one hand, you can picture greater levels of neighborliness. But if someone were to move for work, or your son emigrated to Australia, you would never see them again. We have worries that some of the recent developments on the internet and in social media might have pushed us apart,” but modern means of communication, he says, “can help bring people together,” too.

“People also use technology to maintain friendships,” agrees Lim, who likewise points out that it’s difficult to get a reliable measure on whether societies’ loneliness problems, in their nature or in their magnitude, have actually changed in recent decades. “Loneliness is an age-old condition; it’s not something that’s new.”

It turns out there’s also not much evidence to support a popular theory that the increasing secularization of Western societies — where religion is seen as a traditional route for people to regularly come together — is a major factor driving modern loneliness. Counterintuitively, says Hewings, “It would seem on a number of different surveys that levels of loneliness are lower in Northern and Western Europe than they are in Southern and Eastern Europe, which are generally a bit more religious.” Turning up at your local synagogue, church, mosque or temple of choice might well help by offering a ready-made network of social connections, if worship is where you find meaning — as highlighted in a recent report from the U.K.’s Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society — but at the level of society, religion itself, it seems, is no panacea.

What has changed in the past few years, says Lim, is that research has uncovered the true implications of both loneliness and social isolation, “and we’re much more aware of the negative consequences of loneliness on health, and on social [aspects] like our communities.” As new knowledge about how devastating it’s been emerges, she says, “people have started to try to understand the impact of subjective indicators,” of being disconnected, and not just the physical signs like a lack of social involvement. “Previously you might see a lot of focus on just getting people out of the house, or just getting people more friends,” says Lim, “whereas now we know what’s needed is not just that, but also a focus on: How do you make sure that when people do have these networks, the networks are actually meaningful to them?” 

No More Lonely Nights

At the time it was created, some critics saw the U.K.’s Minister of Loneliness job as political virtue-signaling, jumping on the bandwagon of society’s increasing concern for mental well-being. Nine months later, though, it produced something that’s broadly been welcomed by social-welfare campaigners as a sizeable step forward: An 84-page “Strategy for Tackling Loneliness,” which came with a pledge to pursue the scientific evidence for the causes and impacts of loneliness, a timeline for delivering commitments across a number of government departments, from education to housing, and crucially, around $28 million in initial funding.

Of the 60 or so action points contained in the report, says Hewings, “To pick out the one that’s the most important and the most immediately tangible — the one where you could actually see an impact on people’s lives happening quite soon — is that the government is going to roll out social prescribing across England.” Remember that uncomplicated free-to-access healthcare that was one of the upsides to living in the U.K.? The idea behind “social prescribing” is to make severe loneliness part of the National Health Service’s frontline duty of care for anyone who needs it — which, given the scale of the problem, is a fairly astounding thought.

Yet the government seems serious about funding it, and has proposed it would work like this: You might visit your doctor with a physical complaint, but if feelings of isolation are suspected as an underlying cause of your maladies, rather than just offer you medication, they will instead refer you to a “link worker,” whose job it is to treat you for loneliness. The link worker would, as outlined by the government strategy, “work with people to produce a tailored plan to meet the person’s well-being needs. They help people to overcome feelings of loneliness by connecting them to activities and support within their local area. This can include a range of activities from arts participation, befriending and sport or exercise, as well as debt, housing or employment advice.”

It’s basically freely prescribed therapy-lite, and according to Hewings, it’s envisioned as “quite an in-depth piece of work.” And he confirms, “the experience of people who have been providing those kinds of services already has been positive” for those receiving care. 

But it’s not a completely altruistic move on the authorities’ part. Hewings points out that, despite the hefty upfront cost of providing this case-by-case counseling, the program has also been designed as a pressure valve for Britain’s beleaguered National Health Service, which has been buckling under the combined strain of a decade of austerity cuts and a steadily aging population. In the long term, he says, reducing loneliness is expected to actually save the Health Service money, partly by preventing many life-threatening illnesses across U.K. society, “but it also helps the Health Service get the most value for money by focusing doctors on their areas of expertise, while people who have more social needs can be better connected to the things that they need.”

Another big part of the strategy is a public information campaign, which launched in June and is aimed at reducing the stigma attached to the idea of loneliness, as well as to help people see it as an issue that doesn’t just affect the elderly. “Loneliness is particularly associated with transitions,” says Hewings, and “in younger people, there’s a whole set of transitions: Changing jobs, friendship groups changing, etc.” In fact, “the riskiest time, certainly for some episode of loneliness, is that early 18-to-24 phase — the transitions people are going through make it a challenging time.”

Hewings points to the personal experiences of Jo Cox, the M.P. responsible for the U.K. government’s original exploration of the issue: “She was one of the early pioneers in this area, and what made her focused on it was her experiences at university feeling lonely. It grew out of her personal experience, and then, before she was murdered, she set up the Loneliness Commission, which was then taken forward.”

Lonely Hearts Club: Banned

Young or old, though, for anyone who’s feeling isolated, “By talking about it, you’re de-stigmatizing it,” says Lim. “It’s the way we were with depression, for example, 20 years ago.” For those like Lim, who are trying to address the problem through hard data and evidence-based research, the difficulty people have in admitting they feel lonely, both to themselves and to others, poses “probably one of the biggest barriers. People who are rolling out community programs or solutions never use the word loneliness, because you want to promote the program, or improve engagement with programs.” 

Lim hopes that a public debate that demystifies and normalizes loneliness, so people will openly acknowledge it as one aspect of mental well-being among all the others we’re discussing right now, will “give people permission to connect with someone on that day.”

Hiding our loneliness from each other seems a deeply ingrained instinct, though. It’s another quirk of human nature that was in the foreground of Kate Fox’s anthropological investigations of 15 years ago. She was talking about the social habits of the English specifically, but she could have been talking about millions of people in other cultures all over the world when she observed, “We have a desperate need for social contact and emotional bonding, but we cannot simply acknowledge this need, and get on with the pursuit of human warmth and intimacy in a natural, straightforward fashion.” Instead, she went on, we have to “disguise our craving for social contact as a burning desire to throw balls at each other, or to perfect our flower-arranging or motorcycle-maintenance skills, or to save the whales, or the world, or something — and then go to the pub, where we can pretend that we are only there for the beer.”

Wherever you come from, and whatever cultural norms govern your interactions with others, I’m betting you can relate to this on some level. If not, you’ll at least have a sense of what it’s like to feel cut off from human contact, and appreciate why, for those living with that experience 24/7, it’s such an important thing to confront, at every level: individuals, friends and families, communities, populations. Lim is optimistic that as long as we’re talking about it, precisely because we’re socially motivated creatures, it’s a thing that can ultimately be dealt with: “Humans are designed to be kind to each other, and we’re designed to rely on each other and to thrive.” 

And if you can’t relate to that — well, you’re pretty much on your own.