Are You Feeling Lonely? Join the Crowd

Photo by Inzmam Khan on

The above title may sound flippant, but it points to a huge problem—and hints at a possible solution.

On May 1, the US government released a publication entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, 2023: The US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.”

It’s a well-documented study, drawing on published research in a number of fields.

And it contains an astonishing finding:

One out of every two Americans self-identifies as being lonely.

This condition, exacerbated by the pandemic but apparently building for years, is being linked to everything from worsening physical and mental health to societal disorders and even the rise of racial and ethnic hatred and violence.

In the opening letter to the Advisory, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, wrote that he hadn’t thought about loneliness until he embarked on a listening tour in 2014, when he first served as Surgeon General in the Obama administration.

“People began to tell me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant. Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word ‘lonely,’ time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, ‘I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself,’ or ‘if I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice.’

“It was a lightbulb moment for me: social disconnection was far more common than I had realized.”

He cites the toll of loneliness and social isolation on “individual and societal health”: association with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.” The mortality impact is said to rival obesity and physical inactivity and be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished” by people’s lack of involvement.

“Loneliness in America”

After reading the 81-page Advisory, I listened to a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion about “Loneliness in America.” The podcast on which it appeared, Talking Feds, moderated by former prosecutor Harry Litman, often covers the legal perspective on events in the news.

But this time, Litman devoted the hour to what he called “a pressing crisis of deep and growing importance in the United States…affecting more than half the population.”

Three guest experts “who’ve been sounding the alarm for several years” joined Litman in this discussion:

*Surgeon General Murthy, MD, MBA;

*Julianne Holt-Lunsted, PhD, who was the Lead Science reviewer for the study, is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University, where she’s the Director of its Social Connections Lab, and is also the Scientific Chair and a Board Member for the Foundation for Social Connection, and Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection;

*Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who is one of the most committed legislators in the quest for common sense gun laws and serves on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, as well as Appropriations and Foreign Relations.

To Litman’s question about how the data behind the Surgeon’s Advisory had been captured, Holt-Lunsted said the self-reporting emerged from “large and nationally representative samples” and the “same measures have been used over time in a large percentage of Americans.”

Not surprisingly, a considerable portion of the discussion focused on the impact of social media. Murphy spoke about the vulnerable young people grappling with feelings of envy and narcissism.

What’s Different Now?

When Litman said envy and narcissism have always been with us and asked what has changed so much, Murphy responded that ten years ago, our society assumed that social media interactions would be comparable to those occurring in person. But that’s not true; we’ve learned how different connections via video chats, texts, and emails are.

In addition, he said, there’s been a turning away from concern for the common good and for community, leaving us “dangerously hyper-inwardly focused.”

Holt-Lunsted elaborated on that point. For much of our species’ existence, “we’ve been interdependent,” which is a critical condition for survival. “With modern conveniences, it’s convenient to spend more time in isolation.”

As a result, we may not be meeting essential biological social needs we’ve had throughout history. Whereas it used to be “As I help others, they help me in return. We’ve lost that.”

She added that

“decades of scientific evidence converges: being more socially connected is protective; lacking is associated with greater risk.”

Holt-Lunsted was involved in a meta analysis covering 3.4 million self-identified lonely people that found earlier death from all causes, including suicide, and disease-related.

In addition to the cardiovascular, depression, and anxiety mentioned by Dr. Murthy, she cited addiction, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and susceptibility to cold and flu viruses. One study even found reduced effect of the Covid vaccination.

These are turbulent times, as Murthy underscored:

“In the last few decades, the pace of change and the extent of change on our lives has become greater than ever—across the world.”

To build relationships, we need social skills, Murthy stressed, including empathy and curiosity about others. These skills have evolved over centuries as people interacted with one another.

But today,

“fewer have these interpersonal interactions. I hear from parents/teachers—understanding the basic emotions is lacking in kids—this is a gap we need to fill for healthy relationships.”

Of course, that brings us back to technology, which he said we should view as a tool, while trying to greatly improve “how it’s harnessed and used.”

In some instances, such as among LGBTQ kids finding a community, it can be a lifeline. But some kids are being harmed.

“They feel worse about themselves and their friendships, but they can’t get off—comparing themselves constantly—hundreds of posts a day, receiving doctored pictures of others that make them feel bad.”

In young 13-14 yr olds, self-esteem is being built. We should say yes to the benefits of social media, but apply the same attention to safety standards that we apply to other products affecting youngsters.

Murthy underscored that the strain on parents is profound; they want to know if this technology is hurting their kids. This isn’t a fair fight, he added, essentially pitting parents who want to protect themselves and their children against some of the best designers, who are playing with young minds.

And, Holt-Lunsted added, the constantly changing algorithms make the task more difficult.

Proposed Legislation

Murphy described a new bipartisan bill that he and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) are working on with Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Katie Britt (R-AL). They are all busy parents who are struggling to protect their own kids and everyone else’s kids online, he observed.

“One day my kid will just receive funny videos, but the next day, if he’s not feeling great, the algorithm pushes him down a rabbit hole.”

In their bill, social media companies must consent not to allow any child under age 13 online, using stronger age verification than at present.

“We want companies to make an honest try for age verification—to set up meaningful age verifications so there are fewer 8 and 9 year-olds on line watching pornography than today.”

And for those between 13 and 18, the companies would be restricted from using algorithms based on data they’d gathered from a child’s viewing to direct that child to content that would feed into his insecurities and anxieties.

These companies frequently deliver “dangerous content to kids in crisis,” Murphy said. The parents of a child who’d committed suicide saw a video their son had viewed just before his death. Murphy called it a “snuff video” urging the boy to kill himself.

Social media have had time to stop these dreadful practices and haven’t done it, he said. Enforcement is necessary.

Though Murphy is a strong gun safety advocate, he said it’s dangerous to connect loneliness with gun violence because so many other countries have lonely people who don’t have similar access to guns.

However, he noted, individuals who commit mass violence often report they’re disconnected from peers—are lonely and detached from society–and we shouldn’t just let them walk into a store and walk out with an assault weapon.

Litman confirmed, based on his years as a prosecutor, that such shooters were often nondescript, even reviled, low-status individuals with pathological connections in social media.

It’s also been documented that the search for connection and meaning has led to a rise in hate groups and dangerous political divisions.

“We Know How to Rebuild”

The good news arising from the Surgeon General’s Advisory and this discussion is that there are workable remedies to reverse all these negative trends in both individuals and society.

“We know how to rebuild,” Murthy said. “It’s not easy, but it’s doable.”

He spoke of schools with student-driven programs that connect the kids, and community spaces where retired men go to do woodworking together. A young woman who moved to Dallas and didn’t know anyone built a large table in her back yard and invited her neighbors for potluck. People were so eager to meet others that it grew into an ongoing program—clearly addressing a fundamental need.

And he described his personal, intentional effort to build his own community based on “moai.” This is an Okinawan tradition that is reportedly responsible for its practitioners’ longevity: an explicit lifelong commitment to have each other’s backs.

In 2018, Murthy felt sad and isolated. He reached out to two good friends; the three men talked to each other, saw each other (often electronically), shared both good and bad news, called to discuss decisions they faced.

It wasn’t complicated, but it changed my life—helped me through so many decisions.”

He urged those listening to this podcast to spend 15 minutes a day reaching out, extending kindness. Don’t read your phone in someone else’s company, he added.

“Small acts of kindness go a long way to people who feel lonely.”

In the Advisory, Murthy writes about the “opportunity” and “obligation” our nation has to invest in social connection—just as we’ve done with tobacco, obesity, and addiction—and to build greater connections in our lives individually and as a country.

“The Benefits of More Connected Communities” vs “Social Polarization”

The Advisory’s final chapters offer The Benefits of More Connected Communities in terms of population health, natural hazard preparation and resilience, community safety, economic prosperity, and civic engagement and representative government.

In comparison, the potential negative side of social connection is believed to be societal polarization (which seems to be where we are).

It concludes with what it regards as the pillars to advance social connection and recommendations for action by a wide range of disparate stakeholders.

Even as I read the advisory and listened to the discussion, I wondered how long it would take for the far right (and others) to attack the government’s spending and efforts devoted to such a “woke” topic.

Litman expressed the same concern.

Calling his guests “visionaries” for zeroing in on both this vast problem and potential solutions, he anticipated some of the reactions may be: “What? We’re talking about loneliness now?”

So he asked his guests about the responses they receive when they discuss the issue.

“Is it resonating? Do people lump this in with ‘woke,’ soft-headed liberalism, etc?”

Murphy replied that he’d written a brief article called “The Politics of Loneliness” (which appeared in The Bulwark in 2022 and is worth reading) “and I don’t know that there’s anything I’ve written in the last five years that’s gotten more feedback, more fist-bumps—in Connecticut and as I cross the country.”

Murphy’s Hope-Filled Political Observations

“In the end, my job is to increase people’s quality of life. I’m in the happiness business. So if I’m not talking about the way that people feel and trying to tailor public policy to make them feel better, then I don’t feel I’m doing my job.

Government’s gotten so big, and so much is connected to the [political] horse race that we forget that the only reason we exist is to just try to make people’s lives better.”

This effort is also important because it’s “totally apolitical.”

“The reason I’m investing a lot of time right now in talking about the way people feel is that it’s a really easy way to build bridges between people that right now see very little connection to each other—because people are feeling lonely on the right and the left; they’re conservative and liberal.

“And when you really start to talk about the solutions to loneliness from a public policy standpoint, they don’t easily fall into left/right divisions; that’s why you’ve got me and Tom Cotton working together on a social media bill.

“So for me, this is fundamentally connected to my job, making people feel better, and using public policy to help people feel better, but I also feel in an age when people are so unbelievably frustrated—and rightfully so—by the politicization of our conversation, talking about the way we feel—and spending some time doing that, not feeling ashamed, and then methodically moving to policy once we’ve achieved consensus on the things we feel we don’t like, I actually think that’s a more constructive political debate ultimately than the way do things now, which is jump straight into policy, straight into solutions. And when you do that, it just creates frictions from the jump.”

In My Little Corner of the World

I’ve been pondering this issue in societal–not personal–terms. But last night, my husband and I took a walk after dinner. On our way home, neighbors whom we don’t know well were sitting on their front step: Wife, husband, adult son, grandson.

We hadn’t seen them for quite a while, as they’d had to relocate after escaping a potentially fatal falling tree two years ago that had destroyed much of their home. They’d been away at the time, but their other son had been sleeping in the basement. Fortunately, he was unharmed.

The child—around three years old—ran up to us to say hello in the sweetest way. We stopped to welcome them back and ask how they were doing. After expressing delight in seeing us, they described their travails, and the wife added that she’d saved her husband’s life: he hadn’t wanted to join her on the trip but had done so at the last minute.

I had such a warm feeling after that brief chat. It was so good to reconnect with our neighbors and meet their adorable grandson. I’ve been emerging oh-so-slowly from Covid-induced isolation. Though I see friends, the introvert part of me thought I was quite comfortable with minimal contact. That little neighborly encounter showed me that I’ve missed social connections more than I’d realized.

What do you think of all this? Does it ring true to you? Does Senator Murphy’s view of how to overcome polarization seem plausible? Do you see any hope—as the discussion participants do—in efforts to address loneliness and lack of social connection from many angles, beginning with individuals in their communities?


22 thoughts on “Are You Feeling Lonely? Join the Crowd

    1. You seem like a very sociable guy, Neil. If you feel the need for new friends, I think you’re likely to make some. But if you’re compatible with your four or five newish friends, you’re very lucky, indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve been lonely my entire life. This has nothing to do with the modern world or anything else. Some of us are just loners. Even if we desire communion with others & sometimes achieve that, it is usually sweet but fleeting.

    I don’t think these times are anymore lonely than any other time. As an avid reader, I can point to any period in history when people expressed extreme loneliness for any variety of reasons.

    There are upsides to being alone. If I wasn’t alone all the time, I wouldn’t be able to read as much as I do. I spend most of my day reading. I would also not be able to write as much as I do. When you’re with other people, you don’t have the concentration required to write.

    There’s pros & cons to everything. Even the state of being lonely.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Polly, I appreciate this candid comment. In some ways, I’m sure there are constants that make the present little different from the past. But I do think, as Murthy said, that the pace of change is dramatically different—and that creates new issues.

      I’m enough of an introvert to identify with your desire to spend much of my time enjoying the solitary life of writing and reading. And I certainly agree with your sensible closing sentence. The problem, I think, is with people who are suffering as a result of their loneliness and don’t know where to turn for help.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel somewhat the same as Silverapplequeen. I prefer being alone most of the time, and most of my life I have been — never lived with another person in the same space since moving out of my parents house to go to university, for example.

    The problem is that humans are social creatures, and even loners need some level of social interaction to feel normal. One problem loners have is that since we spend a lot less time around other people by choice, we don’t develop much skill at handling social interactions smoothly, which makes it more difficult to make friends.

    Another problem is that so much interaction with other people happens at work. In my experience, work environments have always been toxic and unpleasant — it’s hard to tell whether it’s gotten worse over the decades I’ve been dealing with it, though I suspect overall it has. Certainly it’s nasty enough that since the pandemic made work-from-home a new norm for office workers, people have been fighting tooth and nail to continue doing it and avoid the office environment, despite the efforts of bosses to drag them back to offices. Spending forty hours a week in unchosen human contact in a poisonous environment must corrode people’s enthusiasm and energy for seeking out the kind of human contact they would actually want.

    There’s also the fact that Americans move so frequently and the country is so huge. Even if you get to know your neighbors pretty well, at any moment they might relocate a thousand miles away.

    Americans are also notorious for relatively shallow social interaction. Compared with many other societies, we easily get to the casual “Hi how are you” stage, but it’s difficult to move beyond that.

    The extreme longevity of Okinawans is usually attributed to their healthy diet and an environment which forces a lot of physical activity like walking. Recently, as meat-heavy and fatty American-style fast food has begun to encroach, there are signs that health and longevity on Okinawa are starting to deteriorate. The sense of social connection undoubtedly helps, though. I remember that when my mother was in an assisted living facility, and I mentioned to her doctor that I visited her every day, the doctor said “You’re doing more to keep her alive than all the medications.”

    Social media are thoroughly poisonous and their domination of children’s and teenagers’ lives is a catastrophe. We should keep it completely away from minors, just as we do (or try to) with cigarettes and alcohol and pornography. It’s hard to be sure how to do this without undermining the privacy of adults, though. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of parents.

    Kudos to Murthy for trying to address the problem — and for keeping it “totally apolitical”. The migraine blare of ideology is encroaching on everyday life far too much as it is. Having everything infected with ideology makes the social environment feel like North Korea. That’s probably another reason people are more wary around strangers. You never know what the discovery of a difference of opinion might provoke.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Infidel. So many valuable insights and observations here. I do think the workplace change is a mixed bag in terms of loneliness, though. I know people who work from home but choose to sit in Starbucks with their laptops because they enjoy being around others.

      Your point about Americans moving so often was mentioned.

      If you’d care to elaborate on Americans’ shallow social interaction compared with other societies, I’d welcome more on that topic. We can always learn from others.

      Your mother’s doctor was surely right about the importance of your daily visits. There’s ample research supporting his statement.

      Although kids’ social media interactions are parents’ responsibilities, both Dr Murthy and Sen. Murphy were persuasive in describing how difficult it is for parents to deal with this issue. I think Sen Murphy’s proposed legislation is sufficiently targeted so that it’s unlikely to have much impact on adults. (It was the Senator who spoke of keeping things “totally apolitical”—I probably should have specified “Dr” or “ Sen” throughout because of the similar names.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you’d care to elaborate on Americans’ shallow social interaction compared with other societies, I’d welcome more on that topic. We can always learn from others

        What I mostly had in mind is comments I’ve heard from others over the years, mostly Germans and Iranians who had a lot of experience dealing with Americans. I think there is actual research to substantiate the point, but I don’t remember anything specific well enough to cite it. Because Americans spend so much time at work, there is a tendency to make friends at work, but with one exception, I have never had such a friendship continue past the point where I left the company and was no longer a co-worker, even when I made an effort to maintain it.

        Not that it really matters, but my mother’s doctor was a she. Perhaps especially because Americans tend not to form deep friendships easily, family relationships are all the more important. Toward the end my mother forgot pretty much everything about her own life, and could not even talk, but she always recognized me. But in our culture even family ties are expected to take a back seat to the all-important career. People routinely move hundreds of miles and lose close contact with immediate family, for the sake of a few more dollars.

        Yes, I was confused by the similar names. One needs to read with extra alertness in such cases.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you, Infidel. I thought perhaps you’d written something about Americans’ apparent shallow interactions and could simply forward a link. It’s an interesting topic. I actually have a few friends from a job I had years ago, but I think continuing such relationships requires that they were based on commonalities that reach beyond the daily grind. That’s not always easy when the daily grind is as toxic as you suggest.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Annie for this provocative article. I have seven mostly single seniors coming for dinner tomorrow (we have met monthly for a decade). I’ll ask their opinions.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. An article rich with questions and reflections Annie.
    Definitely which had me thinking about the Societies we are creating. From this article and your own commentary this brings to mind another phenomenon in this age of Trends, Influencers etc, etc and that is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) which is something of an issue for younger folk, that they mind know the latest in Music, trends etc and be made to feel inadequate, and thus I’m guessing increase the feeling of loneliness you highlight.
    Small wonder then that Conspiracy Groups flourish; finding common cause with folk of like minds and some kind of twisted community.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Roger. I think your FOMO observation is an important part of the picture, and I hope we’ll learn more about how to make inroads into conspiracy and hate groups and move them in positive directions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s the difficulty Annie. Twisted and deluded folk have access to willing audiences and thus fodder for their vanities and prejudices.
        The abrogation of maturity and responsibility amongst current Republican populists is inflaming the situation.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Quite so Annie, a cogent reminder. I guess, these days, I just automatically assumed that was part of their construct.
        Genuine Old School Republicans who care about the USA must be feeling quite wretched.


  5. During my childhood, one of the key things my father stressed was the importance of having friends. Following his advice, I did indeed make friends during all chapters of my life—school, workplaces, organizations I joined, neighborhood gatherings. A key realization, as the years passed, was that making friends is not nearly as difficult as keeping friends. The latter involves organizing get-togethers, reaching out to people you haven’t heard from, and being a good listener. Like most life-enhancing endeavors, maintaining friendships is both challenging and rewarding.

    Liked by 1 person

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