What We Know About the Loneliness Epidemic and How It’s Different Than Being Alone

Ray Williams
20 min readFeb 13, 2024

There are two disturbing trends today. The first is the loneliness epidemic in the U.S., And the second is that people have lost the desire for meaningful and beneficial solitude. While they may appear the same, loneliness is not the same as being alone.

The Loneliness Epidemic

According to several recent studies, loneliness is on the rise, especially during the COVID epidemic.

The U.S. Surgeon General report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” found that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.

Across age groups, people spend less time with each other in person than two decades ago. The advisory reported that this was most pronounced in young people aged 15–24 with 70% less social interaction with their friends.

A Harvard survey conducted in 2020 found that 61% of adults from 18 to 25 reported feeling serious loneliness, compared to 39% across the general population.

University of Michigan

Data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging showed loneliness among 50- to 80-year-olds had increased from 27% in October 2018 to 56% in June 2020, at the height of pandemic-era restrictions. One in 2 adults in the U.S. are living with measurable levels of loneliness — it’s a broader swath of the population than the number of people with diabetes, the researchers reported. “Building social connections in our life has to be a vital priority.”

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Making Caring Common” project described the extent of loneliness in America. Young adults are the loneliest group. According to the research findings, 61 percent of young people ages 18 to 25 reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” during the four weeks preceding the fall survey. Forty-three percent of these young adults indicated their loneliness had increased since the pandemic and related lockdowns began. The report analyzed “Alarming numbers of Americans are lonely,” they conclude in their paper, and those surveyed “reported substantial increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.”

Young adults are the loneliest group. According to the research findings, 61 percent of young people ages 18 to 25 reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” during the four weeks preceding the fall survey. Forty-three percent of these young adults indicated their loneliness had increased since the pandemic and related lockdowns began.

In 2018, a joint Kaiser Family Foundation and Economist survey found that one in five Americans “often” or “almost always” felt lonely or socially isolated, and results from a large-scale Cigna report released in January 2020 found that three out of five Americans reported being lonely.

Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Chicago, says that one in three people in America is affected by loneliness, and one in 12 is affected severely.

Loneliness in America has been a mounting concern for decades. In his ground-breaking 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documented the growing alienation of Americans as previously robust aspects of civil society that fostered connection, such as bowling leagues, faded away.

Defining Loneliness

Loneliness is “ the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences.” Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, says, “Loneliness is a state of mind characterized by a dissociation between what an individual wants or expects from a relationship and what that individual experiences. Because loneliness is a state of mind, being physically alone is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition to experience loneliness.” She says that loneliness is a universal condition that makes a person irritable, self-centred, and depressed and is associated with a 26 percent increase in the odds of premature mortality.

Some people surrounded by others throughout the day — or in a long-lasting marriage — still experience deep and pervasive loneliness.

There’s evidence that lonely individuals have a sort of negativity bias in evaluating social interactions. Lonely people pick up on signs of potential rejection more quickly than others; perhaps avoiding it and protecting themselves is better. People who feel lonely need to be aware of this bias to override it in seeking companionship.

The Negative Impact of Loneliness

The U.S. Surgeon General’s report warns that the physical consequences of poor connection can be devastating, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.

A 2022 paper from Johns Hopkins University also found that socially isolated older adults had a higher chance of developing dementia and cognitive impairment than their peers. A meta-analysis published in Ageing Research Reviews has suggested that social isolation could be a greater risk factor for dementia than previously believed. People over 55 who live alone are 30 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who live with others, according to a study led by Dr. Roopal Desai.

Loneliness is detrimental to mental and physical health, experts say, leading to an increased risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke and premature death, depression, anxiety, addiction, suicidality and self-harm.The U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory report found that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26% and isolation by 29%. Murthy said in terms of your lifespan, continuing to live in loneliness is equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Feeling lonely also increases a person’s risk of heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%, according to the American Heart Association.

The report concluded that loneliness could trigger stress hormones, which cause inflammation and dysregulate bodily functions. Feeling lonely could also cause people to adopt unhealthy lifestyle behaviors like poor diet, smoking and substance use.

Feeling lonely also increases a person’s risk of heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%, according to the American Heart Association.

Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain’s structure and function. That’s the conclusion of a study by Stephanie and John Capitanio published in Psychological Bulletin. They report loneliness is the cause, not just the consequence, of various mental and physical effects. The review suggests lonely people are sensitive to adverse social outcomes, and accordingly, their responses in social settings are dampened.

The Anatomy of Loneliness

An online survey of 55,000 people from around the world, called the BBC Loneliness Experiment, was created by academics at three British universities in collaboration with Wellcome Collection. It concluded the following:

  • Younger people feel lonelier than older people. When you picture someone lonely, the stereotype is often an older person who lives alone and hardly sees anyone. Indeed, in the BBC Loneliness Experiment, 27% of people over 75 said they frequently or very often feel lonely. This is higher than in some surveys, but because the survey was online, we had a self-selecting sample and might have attracted more people who feel lonely.
  • 41% of people think loneliness can be positive. This finding fits in with the ideas of the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who believed that we evolved to experience loneliness because it can be helpful, even though it’s unpleasant. Humans have survived by forming cooperative groups. If people feel excluded from a group, then feelings of loneliness might drive them to connect with people, find new friends or rekindle old relationships.
  • People who feel lonely have social skills that are no better or worse than average. Sometimes, it’s assumed that people feel lonely because they’ve found it hard to make friends and help with improving social skills would make a difference. A key element of social interaction is the ability to tell what other people are feeling so that you can adjust your responses accordingly. Perhaps they’re worried about something, or you’ve accidentally offended them.
  • Winter is no lonelier than any other time of year. In the run-up to Christmas, you often see campaigns from charities that help the elderly featuring pictures of isolated old people. It’s a day of the year about gathering with your loved ones to celebrate, so many would dread facing the day alone. British comedian Sarah Millican runs a successful #joinin campaign on Twitter on Christmas Day so that people who feel lonely can chat to each other. And if you live in the northern hemisphere, Christmas also falls in the middle of winter when days are shortest, and people stay in more, leaving you even more isolated if you feel lonely.
  • People who often feel lonely have higher levels of empathy than everyone else. In the survey, two kinds of empathy were measured. One was empathy for people’s physical pain — how sorry you feel for someone who accidentally slammed their hand in a door, picked up a scalding frying pan, or stung by a wasp. The other was how much empathy you have for other people’s social pain — for someone who’s been bullied at school, not invited to a party or dumped by their partner. There was no difference in empathy for physical pain between the people who felt more or less lonely. However, the people who said they often or very often felt lonely scored higher on average for empathy for social pain. Maybe because they have experienced what it feels like to be left out, they empathize more with other people who find themselves in the same situation.

Louise Hawkley, a principal research scientist in the Academic Research Centers, NORC, at the University of Chicago and Dr. Carl Perissinotto, professor of medicine and associate chief for Geriatrics Clinical Programs at the University of California, San Francisco, have studied loneliness extensively and agree. Hawkley said: “One of the things that distinguishes between loneliness and isolation is that loneliness has very little to do with quantity, with how many people you interact with, how many groups you belong to, although there is a relationship (between them), it is not very strong.”

“Those who choose to live alone or be single or just spend much of their time on their own aren’t necessarily worse off when it comes to feeling alone,” she added.

If your social media feed is filled with snapshots of parties with big groups or everywhere you go you have an acquaintance you can say hello to. However, you still feel the sting of loneliness, you aren’t being dramatic, Perissinotto said.

“You could have many social contacts and still be incredibly lonely,” she added. “You can see someone very gregarious, and it seems like they are very connected, yet they have a deep sense of loneliness.”

There are three primary types of connection, and loneliness can stem from a sense of lacking in any of them, Hawkley said. The first is called intimate connection when someone like a romantic partner is so close to you that part of your identity becomes intertwined with theirs, she said. Then there is a relational connection, which you establish with close friends and confidants, as well as collective connection — or those interactions that make you feel part of a community, Hawkley said. It is essential to identify what kind of loss of connection the feeling is coming from, she said. And then you have to evaluate the quality of those relationships, Perissinotto said. “I think those are some tangible things to ask yourself: is it valuable to me? Do I feel valued? Does it help me to feel like I have a sense of purpose, and does it make me feel good?” Perissinotto said.

America’s Individualistic Culture and Social Media Addiction Feeds Loneliness

Luzia Heu and her colleagues published a study in Review of General Psychology that concluded, “Individualism may increase the risk for loneliness due to greater social isolation.”

Social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook allow us to interact with strangers and consume hours of content simply by scrolling on our phones. Yet, despite their ostensibly unifying nature, these platforms only exacerbate or perhaps constitute the cause of the social disconnect. These apps reduce human emotional interactions to simple emojis: We can now express our feelings through the click of a button, eroding our ability to meaningfully display emotion and exercise two-way communication, without realizing how this mode of communication slowly changes our perception of what true “human connection” and “friendship” should be.

The craze over social media engenders more than weakened friendships. A Harvard study found that using smartphones and other electronic devices harms brain functioning by reducing the amount of Non-REM Stage N2 sleep — necessary for information storage — that teens get. Apart from more difficulty in completing daily tasks, reduced brain function can hinder people’s ability to engage with others actively in social situations. It may also diminish our ability to understand social cues, indispensable to building relationships.

But it doesn’t end there. Social media instills narcissistic overtones in the ways we view ourselves. The Internet’s obsession with edited and photoshopped images distorts our perception of what we should look like to be accepted by others. Reduced self-esteem hampers our courage to meet new people and build relationships. Moreover, such images sow competition among people.

Social media has accelerated loneliness as research shows feeling lonely is more common among heavy users of these sites. Although “likes” and “followers” may make a person feel good at the moment, they don’t foster genuine connectedness with other people, Surgeon General Murthy said.

The Harvard study found “Lots of people can surround you, and you can have lots of followers or connections on social media, but not necessarily feel like you’ve got somebody who knows you or shows up for you in a crisis,” the report concluded.

Yet, social media is not the only culprit for loneliness. Ingrained in our neoliberal, capitalist culture is an ultra-individualistic outlook that places value on personal success — and the prerequisite competition — over cooperation and human connection. Unlike collectivism, which emphasizes close social networks and family relationships and does not stigmatize interdependence, individualism peddles the idea that personal success without interdependence trumps all else.

Dartmouth College President Sian Leah Beilock notes in Scientific American that loneliness is most prevalent in individualistic societies such as America, adding that young people have the highest risk of lacking companionship. She explains that extended isolation can affect our brain’s neurobiology and create a “hunger” or “thirst” for contact that fuels feelings of loneliness. This, in turn, raises the risk of myriad physical and mental health problems, including strokes and heart disease.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, “Many young people now use social media as a replacement for in-person relationships, and this often means lower-quality connections.” We also know that for some kids, being online has been a way to find community at a time when many have not been able to,” he said. “What we need to protect against, though, are the elements of technology, and social media in particular, that seek to maximize the amount of time our children are spending online at the expense of their in-person interactions.”

The Characteristics of Loneliness

Though they’re often conflated, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean feeling lonely. Sometimes, time spent alone can feel nourishing and enjoyable, whereas at other times, being around people can make us feel lonely and disconnected. The cliché of “feeling alone in a crowd” is a cliché for a reason, and it illustrates the complex interplay between socializing and feeling alone.

Writing in the Journal of Research in Personality, Alexander Danvers and colleagues from the universities of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Indiana describe their recent investigation into what actually leads us to feel lonely. To do this, the team pooled data from 426 (mainly female) adults who took part in three different studies.

Looking at the studies’ data across all samples, the team found that participants spent around 65% of their waking hours alone. As you would expect, single participants were more likely to experience time without company than those in relationships, spending 8% more of their time by themselves. For single people, being older was also a significant predictor of time spent alone, while gender was not.

However, this didn’t mean that older participants, in general, were more likely to be lonely; in fact, older people were less likely to report feeling as such. Relationship status was a bigger predictor of loneliness overall, with single people feeling much lonelier than those in relationships after age 40. Before this age, though, single people did not feel significantly more lonely than their partnered peers.

The authors suggest that this interplay between age, relationships, and loneliness could be because younger people “feel they have a greater potential to form new relationships in the future” compared to older people, who may already have experienced divorce or bereavement. Alternatively, being single can be seen as more normal or socially acceptable for young people. In contrast, older people may find it more challenging to integrate with peers who begin to spend increasing amounts of time with their families in later life.

The findings from the studies also suggested that although time spent alone and loneliness were correlated, they were also “distinct and separable constructs.” As you might expect, those who spent very little of their time with others reported high levels of loneliness — but, more unexpectedly, so did those who spent a lot of their time with others. Loneliness was exceptionally high in those who spent more than 75% of their waking hours with others, which could suggest that those who are particularly lonely may actively seek out time spent with others to facilitate their lack of feeling of connection.

A new study looks at the link between loneliness and another factor: feeling moved. Writing in Motivation and Emotion, a team from Jagiellonian University in Poland found that lonely people are less likely to be moved — potentially a side effect of their lack of belief in others’ good intentions.

In the first study, 267 participants indicated how often they felt lonely, reported symptoms of depression, and filled in a scale measuring empathy. After completing these measures, participants watched one of two short video clips intended to induce a feeling of being moved; both showed a person helping those around him and receiving gratitude from others.

Following this, participants indicated whether they had experienced various aspects of being moved, including specific sensations (e.g. moist eyes or a lump in their throat), ‘appraisals’ (e.g. a sense of closeness with the protagonist of the video), motivations to act (e.g. wanting to hug someone), emotion (having positive feelings) and ways of labelling the video (e.g. it was heartwarming). Finally, the team measured participants’ general tendency to be moved.

The results showed that the films moved less those who described themselves as more lonely; they also considered themselves less susceptible to being moved in general. Lonelier people tended to show more symptoms of depression and reduced feelings of empathy, but these couldn’t fully explain why they were less moved.

The second study looked to understand why lonely people were less moved. After completing the loneliness scales, participants reported their current mood and were asked to recall a positive situation that had made them (or almost made them) cry. They then rated how moved they were using the same scale as the first study and reported on their general tendency to be moved.

Again, lonelier participants were less likely to be moved, even though they had chosen the moving stimuli themselves. Loneliness also predicted a lack of vividness of the memory and was linked to problems remembering moving situations. And even though lonely participants did tend to have a lower mood, this was again not responsible for the relationship between loneliness and being less moved.

The final study explored whether lonely people might be less moved because they experience and interpret social situations differently. First, the participants completed the loneliness and depression measures before watching one of the video clips used in the first study. They then described their emotional reaction to the film, assessed its overall story, and interpreted the protagonist’s behaviour and intentions.

As before, loneliness was associated with feeling less moved. Low trust in the protagonist’s altruism seemed to be the driver of this relationship, with lonelier participants feeling less moved because they did not think the character was sincerely kind. Lonely people may perceive the world as a less kind, more negative place due to experiences of rejection, thus experiencing less trust and fewer opportunities to be moved.

This means, as other research has shown, that loneliness could be a circular experience, fostering unpleasant social experiences that compound feeling alone. As the team puts it, low sensitivity to being moved could be “both a source and a result of loneliness.”

How to Deal With Loneliness

The most obvious solution to the accelerating loneliness epidemic during the pandemic response is to lift the lockdowns and related public health policies that keep people cruelly separated from one another.

Specifically, they criticize “this age of hyper-individualism,” saying we must “restore our commitment to each other and the common good.” The researchers recommend “national, state, and local public education campaigns” highlighting the loneliness epidemic to achieve this. They suggest that schools, colleges, and workplaces provide more resources to combat loneliness, and they urge a much larger role of government in this process.

“The federal government should greatly expand its commitment to national service for young people, and state and local governments can do much more to promote many forms of organized service that bring people together to work on common problems,” the researchers state.

Still, the Harvard researchers are right to point out that the loneliness epidemic results from disconnection from the community. Encouraging this community connection is a goal that can be best achieved through a robust civil society or the non-governmental, voluntary institutions of our lives — such as extended family, church, clubs, sports leagues, and benefit societies — that have been tragically eroded at the same time that government has grown and taken on roles that were previously reserved for families and communities.

Being true to yourself may protect against the harmful effects of loneliness. A new study by Jennifer Bryan and colleagues published in the Journal of Health Psychology finds a promising candidate that appears to fit this description — authenticity or being true to yourself.

First, perhaps highly authentic people don’t overanalyze their lonely feelings — they don’t see their loneliness as some indictment of their personality; it’s just how things are.

Second, authentic people are likely less inclined to try to escape their lonely situation by hanging out with people they don’t want to be with or doing stuff they don’t want to do. Yes, this might increase their isolation at first, but it probably helps prevent them from growing more bitter and resorting to counter-productive coping mechanisms like drinking too much.

A ten-year study finds loneliness and self-centeredness appear to be mutually reinforcing.

An evolutionary model of loneliness, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. pioneered by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, US, proposes that it has an adaptive function in that it:

  1. makes people want to do something about absent or unsatisfactory social relationships and
  2. encourages people to focus on their interests and welfare.

The researchers predicted that feelings of loneliness would make people more self-centred — and this is precisely what they found. The findings suggest loneliness and self-centredness are mutually reinforcing. However, the influence of some other factor(s) on self-centredness and loneliness may be responsible for this apparent link. However, current depressed mood, symptoms of depression and overall negative mood were not significantly correlated with self-centredness or loneliness at the next year’s evaluation, supporting the interpretation that loneliness and self-centeredness have a direct reciprocal relationship.

Why Being Alone and Solitude is Not the Same as Loneliness

Periods of solitude help older adults recharge after socializing.

Minxia Luo at the University of Zurich and colleagues investigated how that theoretical cycle might unfold in the daily lives of older adults. In their paper in the British Journal of Psychology, they report their study of 118 people aged over 65 who lived in German-speaking regions of Switzerland. When the researchers compared participants, they found that those who were more satisfied with their lives and those who had more day-to-day energy spent even more time in social interaction after a longer than usual period of solitude. The team also found that people with lower scores on the positive mood items and who reported less life satisfaction tended to spend more time overall in solitude. “These findings are in line with previous evidence that trait wellbeing is associated with more time in social interactions,” they write.

In my article, “Why Solitude is Good for You,” I argue “Being alone doesn’t necessarily cause loneliness and many people can feel lonely despite being in the constant presence of other people. Author Amy Morin describes it best when she says: “loneliness is about perceiving that no one is there for you. But solitude is about choosing to be alone with your thoughts.” The truth is that solitude is necessary for our well-being and potential success.

Too much “people time” might also be a bad thing. Our digital devices often make us feel like we need to be connected 24/7. And all of the noise, activity, and hustle can wear you out (and ironically can leave you feeling lonelier than ever.

These same people can be seen during their time off texting, checking their email, checking their smart phone, exercising at the gym, or attending social events when it’s permitted. There’s an expressed discomfort with being alone.

As Paul Tillich once stated: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The real value of solitude is an opportunity for contemplation, self-reflection and self-discovery, or, as Hannah Arendt once put it, a chance to have a “silent dialogue of myself with myself.” For Arendt, solitude was not the same as loneliness: “Though alone, I am together with somebody (myself), that is.” Being able to be alone and confident in oneself is a prerequisite to being able to socialize with others and connect with a wider community. How can we hold meaningful conversations with others if we can’t do so with ourselves?

Manfred Ket De Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change, writing in INSEAD Knowledge, argues, “In today’s networked society, we are at risk of becoming victims of interaction overload. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts as the temptation to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out that’ is often too great to risk.”

De Vries argues that working harder is not working smarter and in fact, setting aside regular periods of “doing nothing” may be “the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.”

De Vries contends that “doing nothing” has become unacceptable. People associate it with irresponsibility and wasting valuable time. It doesn’t provide the stimulation that busyness and distraction-inducing behaviors like constantly checking emails and scrolling social media sites. Facebook and texting do.

In many ways, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. There’s been a rush to “return to normal, “ reopen work and social enterprises, and escape from the forced or voluntary isolation caused by the pandemic.

Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute, and Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at the Huffington Post, write in Harvard Business Review about how solitude helps drive creativity. “Great thinkers and leaders throughout history — from Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak — have lauded the importance of having a metaphorical room of one’s own,” Kaufman and Gregoire write. “But today’s culture overemphasizes the importance of constant social interaction, partly due to social media. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted,” the authors contend.

Christopher R. Long and James R. Averill write in their article, “Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone,” published in The Journal for The Theory of Social Behavior, that “ Solitude, in contrast to loneliness, is often a positive state — one that may be sought rather than avoided.

Quiet Solitude Brings Back the Balance Between “Doing” and “Being.”

Getting stuff done is highly developed in people, particularly in Western culture. Most of us are so accustomed to activity and believe it is a virtue that we feel guilty or a failure if we are not busy doing it. The Puritanical value of the work ethic is intricately intertwined with busyness. But it wasn’t this way in our history. In previous times and other cultures, solitude and being is valued equally. For example, most great artists, writers, and musicians spend much time alone in the being mode. Great musicians and poets spent significant time alone. In the being mode, we live in the present moment and are not focused on the future.

Summing Up

Ironically, the pandemic has allowed us to live life differently, to question our slavish devotion to being busy with others and constantly doing. Research has clearly shown the benefits of slowing down, doing nothing and engaging in quiet solitude. Now is our opportunity to take advantage of it. It has also shown us that loneliness is becoming an epidemic in our society, one that must be seen as a mental and physical health problem that needs to be addressed.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others