Loneliness is a global crisis. According to Britain’s Campaign to End Loneliness, 45 percent of adults feel “occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England.” In a 2019 poll, 22 percent of millennials reported that they had “no friends.” The World Health Organization has found that loneliness affected 20-34 percent of older people in places ranging from Europe to India to Latin America. Former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy called the problem an “epidemic” in 2017, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns, which have made the whole thing even worse.
The problem of loneliness isn’t solely an emotional one. A nearly eighty-year longitudinal study at Harvard University has found that family, friendship, and community are the most decisive factors when it comes to human health and happiness.
“Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too,” said Dr Robert Waldinger, the study’s director and a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School.
In a 2015 study, psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that loneliness is a risk factor for high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, and depression. An oft-repeated fact from the study holds that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
Given this information, the loneliness crisis is particularly alarming.
Some people blame social media. In the early 2010s, I began to see articles circulating asking whether spending time on Facebook, YouTube, and other sites was causing people to stop nurturing their real-life friendships. While excessive social media use can be harmful, moderate use can help people stay connected – especially during unique times like the COVID-19 lockdowns. And there is a bigger impediment to intimacy, anyway: capitalism.
In a capitalist system, many people don’t have time to see family and maintain existing friendships — let alone create and nurture new ones. It is difficult to make time to see people when you are, for example, working multiple jobs (often with irregular shift times), commuting, caring for children and family members, and doing basic tasks like cooking, going to the grocery store, and doing laundry, sometimes all at once. Social time often necessarily gets bumped to the bottom of the to-do list. Public spaces in which to spend social time for free or cheap are also increasingly rare, and when money is tight, necessities get priority. These factors mean that busy social lives are increasingly reserved for those who can afford them.
There are, of course, plenty of oft-touted ways to increase the amount of time you spend socializing. You can improve your time management skills, set concrete dates to see people, and always follow up to reschedule when plans fall through. You can meet new people by getting involved with a sport, a religious group, or a political organization. Some variation of “join a club” is a standard on lists of ways to feel less lonely.
But these are individualized solutions to what is often a collective problem. The reality is that there are only so many hours in a day, and for most people, most of those hours are taken up by some form of labor, leaving little time — and less energy — left over for friendship. Years of cuts to council budgets have seen spaces like youth centers closing at alarming rates, leaving spaces for “clubs” more and more squeezed.
Another problem has to do with the ways in which capital flows have disrupted long-standing community ties. In rural towns and post-industrial cities, capital has fled. Young people in these places find themselves pulled to capital centers like London or New York in order to find good jobs.
Moving to the big city doesn’t necessarily mean alienation. In fact, for many LGBT people, major urban centers remain places where they can seek true community for the first time. But massive population outflows tend to be alienating, both for the people who leave and for the people who stay behind.
In other cases, community disintegration happens in reverse. People who grew up in city centers are pushed out by rising rents, scattering to cheaper locales. They may meet new people in their new communities, but bonds built over the course of years, decades, and generations can never be replaced.
Beyond problems of time and space, extreme inequality makes it difficult to have genuine relationships. In The Inner Level, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson write that humans react strongly to the “social-evaluative threat,” also known as the fear of what other people think. The higher the level of economic inequality, the more we jockey for social status and worry about where we stand in the hierarchy. But healthy relationships require mutual vulnerability and trust: the exact opposite of these things.
If we want to have a less lonely society, we need to put human needs — and human relationships — at the center. Under the existing system, that won’t happen.