I’ve mentioned in my past posts about how I don’t have many friends here in Austin yet and how I’m still searching for my friend group. It’s pretty safe to say that I’ve been lonely here in Austin. It’s not just Austin through, I’ve experienced loneliness for the majority of my life.
In second grade, I spent every recess just walking around the wood planks that lined the perimeter of the playground, looking down at my feet, and not talking to anyone. I noticed that Zeke also did the same thing, but we both never talked to each other as we just silently walked around the playground. I didn’t have many friends in elementary school that I felt close to. Yeah, I had my friends that I saw every day but I didn’t feel like they talked to me particularly because they liked me but just because most social kids tend to just talk to everyone. I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve never really had a best friend that was my “ride-or-die”. And in high school and college, my friend circle was always very small and not the type to do something every weekend but more the type to do something maybe once a month.
I’m pretty solitary by nature but I do wonder how much of my isolation is due to nature, nurture, socialization, or changing society.
When I moved to Austin, my friend circle went to zero, but I immediately went to volleyball and went to different Meet-Up groups. I have talked about that, but with those weekly outings, I was still alone about 80% of the week. I had a similar bout of solitude in the break between graduating college and starting my solo travel to China, but that was a brief period that I knew would end. This time around, the solitude has gone from “just my default nature” to what felt more like loneliness.
The thing about my loneliness (and I believe other people experiencing loneliness feel this too) is that it feels like something is wrong with you. For me, I felt like my loneliness was a result of my social awkwardness and my social aversion. I rationed that I wouldn’t be so lonely if I had more friends and I would have more friends if I wasn’t so awkward, weird, socially inept. It becomes a spiraling line of negative thought and it felt like there was something wrong with me. However, loneliness is becoming more widespread in society and is actually now being called an epidemic, so I know it’s not something I alone struggle with.
The Loneliness Epidemic
There’s been a lot more research and interest in the loneliness epidemic. Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General during Obama’s administration labeled loneliness a public health epidemic. The rates of loneliness have skyrocketed in the US with nearly half of American adults in a survey done by Cigna reported that they reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated. 
- Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
- One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
- Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
- Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
- Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
- Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).
Loneliness is particularly a concern for my generation (I’m right on the border of being a Millennial and Generation Z). A 2017 VICELAND census reported that loneliness is the number one fear amongst young people which is ahead of losing a home or a job. Furthermore, 42% of Millennial women reported being more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis. 
These numbers are also anticipated to be higher because many people don’t like admitting that they are lonely. There’s a shame associated with it, so if the surveys don’t get the wording of their questions right, they risk not getting accurate results.
Johann Hari, an investigative journalist and author, looked into why rates of loneliness have been accelerating in his book Lost Connections. There were a couple of reasons he pointed to that are increasing loneliness in society. He reported that half of Americans now say nobody really knows them well and, in the past, people reported having at least 5 close friends who knew them well. 
We also live more socially isolated lives and more and more people are living alone. On this reason, Neil Howe noted that “…up until the 1960s, single-person households were exceedingly rare. But over the past 50 years, the share of U.S. households consisting of one person has more than doubled.”  There’s less communal living now and many people don’t interact with their neighbors. People are also getting married and having children later in life and therefore don’t necessarily have that familial network that can fulfill a need for social connection.
The rise of social media has also caused some conflict. While it can allow people to stay connected and have a community, Hari writes that it doesn’t replace real human interaction and relationships. Social media is, as he calls it, a parody of social connectedness. That can become dangerous when it gives users a false sense of community compounded with the addicting effect social media can often have. There have also been studies that show the trend of technological immersion and feelings of isolation on young kids.
Why is it cause for concern?
There are lots of physical consequences linked to loneliness. Studies link loneliness to greater risks for obesity, heart disease, anxiety, dementia, and reduced life span. There have been lots of headlines that talk about how loneliness is found to be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day because it shortens a person’s lifespan by 15 years. Senator Ben Sasse even stated that loneliness, not obesity, cancer, or heart disease, is the number one health crisis.
One study stated that “maintaining strong and healthy social connections has been linked to a 50% reduced risk of early death.”  In other words, if you have fulfilling bonds with other people, you lessen your chance of early death. An analysis from 2015 pooled the data from 70 studies and found that of the 3.4 million people they studied, the lonely individuals had a 26% higher risk of death and those who lived alone had a 32% higher risk. Lonely individuals also experience more rapid cognitive decline and have higher risks of Alzheimer’s. 
Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist called these preventable “deaths of despair.” These deaths are things like suicide, alcoholism-related liver disease, and addiction that are linked to loneliness and social isolation.  One of these types of deaths of despair – drug overdoses – is killing more Americans each year than the Vietnam War’s entire death toll. 
Aside from loneliness usually meaning unhappiness, it also has deadly physical impacts on the human body.
Why does loneliness affect the body?
Loneliness is a sensation in the body and one that we deliberately evolved to survive. Murthy discussed with Ezra Klein about how, like other critical alert systems in the body, loneliness is an alert system telling our body to seek more social connection.  It may not seem like social connection requires a critical survival alert system in the same way the stomach drives hunger, but evolutionarily humans need other humans to survive.
Humans were always stronger in groups. More people meant better defenses against predators, more people to keep watch and protect the group, and more diversification with skills and resources that each individual provided. It wasn’t just about having a nothing being around you though, the importance was that these were trusted connections that you could be depending on for your survival. Murthy examples these connections with having someone you can trust keep watch over you while you sleep to make sure predators don’t attack. That is an example of a strong, necessary-for-survival connection with another person.
He continues by saying that when you don’t have a sense of protection, you’re in a state of threat. When you’re in that state of threat, your threat perception changes, and you perceive simple things like a twig snapping as a much greater threat than it likely is. This state of threat puts you on guard and causes the person to act more cautiously and perceive things more dangerously.
In relation so social interaction in today’s society, the same state of threat is there when someone doesn’t have that trusted connection. Murthy says people in this state of threat perceive things that are benign as threats. For example, someone could ask them out to lunch and the person in a state of threat might rationalize out of it by thinking they are pitying them, or the person is mocking them.
I know that I experience this a lot. I often get thoughts in my head that people are only inviting me to do things because they feel sorry for me or because I happened to overhear their conversation and now, they feel obligated to invite me as well.
The reason there are all these health risks associated with loneliness is because of the stress state that the body goes in and the resulting chemical response. Murthy explains that this stress state creates a flood of hormones like epinephrine and chemicals like cortisol and mineralocorticoids. These are “all chemicals and hormones which as essentially designed to help us respond to threat by increasing our blood pressure, increasing our heart rate, shifting how our immune system actually works and preparing us for adversity and attack.” For immediate risk situations, those are extremely helpful for a person to react quickly to attacks. But he notes that the problem occurs when that stress state is prolonged. Protracting that stress state actually starts destroying the body. He explains that “when you have a protracted stress state, levels of inflammation arise and when that happens, you can start to damage tissues and blood vessels and increase your risk of illnesses like cardiovascular disease.” It has other effects like impairing the immune system, impairing wound healing response, and disrupting sleep.
Murthy says that the amount of sleep someone in a stress states numerically isn’t less, but the quality is often worse. People have micro-awakenings where they will wake up throughout the night and may not even remember it. A study from UCLA noted that the higher a person was on the loneliness scale, the more likely they were to report sleep disruption levels at an 8% increase.  What’s worse is that there’s research that shows that less sleep results in more social isolation so the two end up feeding off each other. 
Why does this sleep disruption happen? Murthy again goes back to the early days of humans and explains that if you were alone and away from the pack, you would have to sleep eventually. However, you would want that sleep to be light so that you could detect noises and warning signs of approaching predators. Therefore, when you are experiencing loneliness, your body goes into a stress state that inhibits deep sleep from occurring.
If all those negative health impacts weren’t enough, there’s also the economic toll of added health costs to prevent and repair those consequences of loneliness. The National Institute for Health Care Management found that the federal government spent $6.7 billion more each year on health care spending related to social isolation in just senior citizens. 
Financial status can also exacerbate loneliness. A study by AARP reported that among adults over 45 who made less than $25,000 a year, one in two of them reported struggling with loneliness.  This shouldn’t come as much of a shocker as poverty is a massive factor in stress and unhappiness and often inhibits someone’s ability to partake in leisure activities. However, Johann Hari noted that the increasingly consumerist society has marketed that materials goods can be fulfilling, but that ultimately those are junk values that distract from investing in personal interrelationships. Younger generations are being influenced by social media and materialist consumption marketing and he cites this as another reason why rates of loneliness are increasing.
Loneliness also reduces creativity, a person’s reasoning, and workplace productivity. Lonely individuals have less job satisfaction and face a higher risk of unemployment. They often got fewer promotions and were more likely to frequently change jobs rather than have stable jobs. 
Polarization is also a result of loneliness. People who experience social isolation tend to be less empathetic and have an “us” versus “them” mentality. This is something that Senator Ben Sasse believes politics is capitalizing on. The increasing political tribalism is intentionally making society more polarized by creating that sense of “community” in each political tribe that many people are searching for. 
Painful lived experience
Loneliness is not just a health problem or an economic factor, but a deeply painful lived experience. Loneliness is not simply social isolation. For instance, I feel great when I am hiking in the woods of Rocky Mountain National Park all by myself! And part of me thinks about moving to a small town in the woods and just spending my day hiking in nature away from society. That’s social isolation and I don’t feel lonely at all. But I have certainly felt lonely at a party or a bar when I felt like I wasn’t connecting with anyone in the room.
Loneliness, for me, is similar to depression because they strike at the same vein. During both states, I feel insignificant, unwanted, and inadequate. And I don’t just feel those things for that moment or for that week, but I see them as forever states. Like maybe I have moments where I’m smart, funny, and good at my job, but overall, I’m not a meaningful person. And maybe I have some friend groups here and there, but if and once my parents die, there will be literally no one who talks to me on a semi-regular basis in this world.
There’s a medium article that I think eloquently describes loneliness. Here’s just a snippet:
When you somehow end up in a social situation, you practically claw at the walls in your need to leave, to return to your cocoon. Lock yourself in a bathroom. Go outside and chain smoke. Fidget. Avoid eye contact.
The one thing that should alleviate your loneliness — time around people — instead throws you into a fit of panic. Speech is a burden. The weird rituals necessary to be aesthetically acceptable to others are a burden too. Most days, the effort to untangle the mats in your hair and change out of pajamas is enough to confine you indoors, an invisible cage of your own failings.
What you don’t notice is how the cage shrinks day by day, how the bars close in on you, how the ivy grows over the hinges. The longer you’re alone, the harder it is to breakthrough. 
Impacts on men
Loneliness impacts men in a way that isn’t often spoken about. When I worked at CSU as an event planner, we brought this spoken poet, Carlos Andrés Gómez. He was one of the kindest humans I’ve ever met, and I loved the fact that some of my friends, who were men of color, found him to be enlightening. He spoke about masculinity, the tough façade that men of color, in particular, have to put on, and the combination of racism, patriarchy, economic status, and loneliness that men face in society. Watching young black men connect so passionately with Carlos and open themselves up to expressing their emotions made me realize how necessary Carlos’ message is.
My co-worker surprised me with Carlos’ book after the event that had a message in it from Carlos himself. I just got to read the whole book this summer and realized there were parts of it that I deeply felt. I can’t say that I know what loneliness and repression feels like in the same way that men experience it, but I taste the notes of it.
This passage in particular writes of a pain that I emphasize with:
“When we, as men, lock away our pain and vulnerability, it slowly kills us. It casts a dark shadow over our gifts and our heart. It slowly eats away at the sacred, fractured pieces of ourselves that will, ultimately, make us whole. We all collude in this silent game. And in those moments when I catch a glimpse of men battling again the imprecise, unscripted magic of their bodies, I think of this saying that’s a takeoff on a quote from Henry David Thoreau:
‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.’” 
Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a Boston psychiatrist, wrote about how men’s friendships are based on activities like sports and therefore they tend to be more casual. The connections are superficial and not as deeply emotive as women tend to be; therefore, those social connections die out easier.  This all can be observed from a young age and I can attest to it. I spent most of my elementary recesses running around playing football or soccer with the other boys. On the few occasions I hung out with the girls, we mostly just sat on the monkey bars and they gossiped about who they had crushes on. The difference in what the girls and boys did in their friend interactions were quite clear from that early developing age.
I think the reason why the loneliness that men experience interests me so much is that I can relate to a lot of the stories I’ve heard from men. I have never felt like I bonded with other girls as much because I felt uncomfortable in gossip circles and sharing emotions or venting sessions. I have found most of my friendships to be rather fleeting and more situational like playing sports. I also know there’s a part of me that has trouble being vulnerable and open and my default state of reservation and aloofness. I can relate to reading everyone saying about how unhealthy that mindset is but not really knowing how to overcome a way of being that seems so deeply embedded, it feels like nature.
Now saying I relate does not mean I know the extent to what it feels like. But I think that’s why I think the loneliness epidemic in society and amongst men is significant.
In extreme cases, loneliness pushes people to dark subcultures like incels and neo-nazis. I’ve listened to podcasts and read articles with interviews from people who are or were incels and neo-nazis and they always say the thing that made them become what they are is because they felt deeply isolated and alone. They felt like no one understood them, they had no place of belonging and had no intimate connections with anyone. Former neo-nazis have said that a lot of the men in those groups just need help and need a healthy sense of belonging. These groups are known for violence against women and people of color so in the far extremes, loneliness cannot just be physically and mentally unhealthy but violent.
There are a couple of ways to address loneliness, but it will be an uphill battle. There’s addressing it as a health concern with health professions during check-ups and examinations. There’s decreasing the emphasis on junk values usually exacerbated by social media and heavy consumerism. City planners can work on introducing more public gathering spaces and community venues to promote shared spaces. Neighborhoods and housing areas can put together events and promote neighborly interactions. Workplaces can assess how their employees feel socially connected to one another and implement more bonding activities, open feedback channels, and better work-life balance. And we as a society can be more open about loneliness and partaking in the national discussion around loneliness.
There are lots of ways that individuals themselves can strive to become less lonely by going to more social events, opening up, creating healthier habits, but to fix the worldwide epidemic, it will require structural social change.
How have I personally been combatting or preventing this?
I’ve been aware that my loneliness is unhealthy for me since high school. I experienced lots of depression and had suicidal thoughts all concerning my lack of friends that led to a train of thinking that something was wrong with me. I did a lot of reflecting and that’s about the time when I really started just digesting a lot of information and started to use it to make conscious choices about my habits.
That means I exercise daily, cook and eat healthily, rarely use social media, engaging in calming activities like drawing or reading, volunteer often, listen to talk show podcasts, and, of course, get out there in the world and talk to people.
But the most drastic difference has been a recent big one.
I got a dog.
Her name is Parker and she is a little over two years old. She’s a border collie/lab mix and a very sweet and smart girl. It was shocking how immediate the impacts were.
My left eye puffs up when I’m stressed or haven’t got enough sleep. Usually, it goes away midway through the day or the next night after I get a good night’s sleep, but my eye had been puffy for two straight weeks and the day after I got Parker, my eye went back to normal. Sounds silly but as I have talked about, loneliness has bodily chemical impacts. I felt my overall mood become happier and found myself looking forward to every day because I’d have something to do.
There are lots of studies and research showing how pets can alleviate loneliness, can bring meaning and purpose to a person’s life, and can promote healthier lifestyle choices which I don’t think comes as much of a shocker. This is the first pet that’s been solely my own. I now know how fulfilling it is to be responsible for another living being and to have deep emotion love for something that is yours.
Now I get to wake up every morning to a dog who is wagging her tail so much her whole body wiggles and it makes me smile every time.
More things on loneliness
- The loneliness epidemic – The Ezra Klein Show
- The Lonely American Man – Hidden Brain
- Mistakenly Seeking Solitude – The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
- Man Up – Carlos Andrés Gómez