Is loneliness a growing problem?
Photo: Matthew Henry. Source: Freerangestock. CC0.
Several major publications have recently claimed that loneliness has risen dramatically, that it’s an epidemic, that there is a “loneliness crisis.” In the UK, the government even created a “Minister for Loneliness” as a way to battle social isolation and the resulting health problems. Loneliness tends to increase stress, our to which our bodies respond by releasing stress hormones. Over the long run, this can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase our risk of stroke and heart disease. Loneliness is also associated with depression and anxiety.
But is loneliness an epidemic, growing out of control? While an addiction to social media and mobile devices can isolate us from real, in-person relationships, there is little evidence that loneliness is on the rise. While the number of single person households has been rising, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are more isolated. In fact, while older Americans are far more likely to live alone, they are the least likely to describe themselves as feeling left out, and that there’s no one they can talk to or that understands them. Young people, on the other hand, often feel that way. But they always have.
The strongest support for the claim that loneliness has risen comes from two polls conducted over 15 years ago, that indicated the share of adults saying loneliness was a problem rose from 25% to 30%. But it’s not clear whether this change came from a real shift or differences in the way the question was asked or from random changes in the sample. Most of the evidence suggests flat trends.
It’s fairly easy to find stories of people who feel lonely and isolated, and it’s always a good idea to connect with friends and family. But government programs to fight a perceived “epidemic” that is, at best, an ongoing problem that’s been stable over time, remind me of that Monty Python routine, The Ministry of Silly Walks.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”