An Epidemic of Loneliness in America: 3 Reasons

The Harvard Study of Adult Development

Likewise, those who suffered the opposite, i.e. those who experienced loneliness, were more likely to die younger, suffer chronic diseases, and be unhappy. Statistics gathered from the Surgeon General’s report bear this out:

  • Lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day
  • Loneliness impacts health: 29% increased risk of heart disease; 32% increased risk of stroke; 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
  • Across age groups, people are spending 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 who had 70% less social interaction with their friends.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Murthy said loneliness isn’t a uniquely American problem, but instead a feature of modern life around the globe. “And you can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections.”

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What happened? As I alluded in last week’s post, culturally we’ve adopted and normalized a sense of radical privacy. Every individual needs their own room, car, screen, etc. I can imagine a future whereby virtual reality will further this tendency to the point where individuals dwell in their own worlds.

Some of our material possessions and living standards have led to greater isolation. Here are three of them:


Sure you do run into neighbors as you do your grocery shopping or other errands, but how often do we go shopping without any significant interaction with others? A lot of the time, we don’t interact since we don’t know many of our fellow shoppers. This is not the case for our neighbors.


This one is both obvious and not at all obvious. Yes, smartphones obviously are addictive and we spend more time on screens of all sorts (TV, ipads, smartphones). The more time we spend on our screens, the less we spend with others. This is nearly exclusively what everyone is talking about when they think of reasons for our social isolation.

Increasing time spent on screens contributes to an epidemic of loneliness in America

Apart from the smartphone though, the plain telephone may, counterintuitively sometimes lead to social isolation. I only realized this because I was able to experience what life was like before phones. No, I’m not quite that old. By the time I was born phones were ubiquitous in America. However, I was born in India and though I came to America as a toddler, my family and I used to visit India frequently.

In the 1980s in the villages of Kerala in southern India where I am from, practically no one had a phone. What I observed and fondly recall was that people randomly showed up to your house without prior authorization. There really was no way to tell people ahead of time that you were going to show up at their houses. It was thus natural, not awkward to visit with friends and neighbors in a way that is lost today.

I’m not making the case against having telephones though. Some things are worth the compromise but it is a curiosity that makes me question the commonly accepted wisdom about the degree to which phones help us stay connected.

Heating and A/C

Homes had a veranda or you might say were mostly verandas. Most of the time “indoors” was spent on the verandas. The open floor plans seemed to invite social interaction in a way that is largely absent today. Random people, friends, neighbors, even kids walked up and started chatting.

Think of it this way, if you were to walk around your neighborhood, you might say hello to a person sitting on the front porch (which itself is increasingly rare). You almost certainly wouldn’t knock on a closed sealed off door just to say hello to a neighbor. Because air conditioning and heating require us to seal our homes – with doors and windows, we’ve literally closed the door to one another. We’ve made the natural art of socializing awkward and thereby less common.


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