In December of 2003, Joyce Vincent died of an apparent asthma attack in her north London flat. The television was left on. The mail continued to be delivered. Her rent was set up to be automatically deducted from her bank account. The days rolled by and no one noticed she was gone.
Those days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. There were large trash dumpsters on the side of the building next to her unit, so the neighbors never thought much of the smell emanating from her flat. The floor was full of noisy kids and teenagers and no one questioned the constant thrum of television noise in the background.
Eventually, Joyce’s bank account dried up. Her landlord sent her letters of collection. These letters, like the others, simply fell into the stacks scattered about her floor. They went unanswered. Finally, with more than six months of overdue rent, the landlord got a court order to forcibly remove her from the premises. The bailiffs broke down the door, and it was only then her body was discovered. By then, it was January, 2006, more than two years after she passed away.
In that time, nobody ever came looking for Joyce Vincent. No family. No friends. No co-workers. No neighbor knocked on the door to see if things were all right. Nobody called. Nobody checked in. She was 38-years-old when she died.
This story is jaw-dropping in its social implications. It feels unfathomable that entire years could go by with no one noticing a person has died. Yet, these sorts of stories happen frequently. Chances are you’ve seen a news story similar to the one about Joyce Vincent. And they are all the same.
Person lives alone. They lose touch with family and friends. They never meet their neighbors. They stay shut in with their television or computer for years at a time. The world moves on as if they are no longer there until one day, they are no longer there.
What’s the Deal with Loneliness?
Loneliness is widespread in the western world. Sociologists have found that 10-15% of Americans will likely die alone and that number will continue to increase over the coming decades.1 In numerous surveys in both the US and Europe, anywhere from 30% to 60% of the population self-reports feeling lonely and/or says that they have no meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis.2 What’s more surprising is that younger people often report experiencing more loneliness than older people.3
Let’s just put it out there. Loneliness is bad for you. There’s a famous stat that gets bandied about claiming loneliness shortens your lifespan as much as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.4 I always think it’s pretty ridiculous how they calculate these factoids, but the point remains: loneliness is unhealthy, both physically and mentally. It raises the risk of anxiety and depression.5 It also harms your physical health. Studies find that people who are lonely experience more heart disease, higher blood pressure, and weaker immune systems.6
What We Don’t Know about Loneliness
Okay, so that sounds pretty bad. But wait, it gets worse… there’s still much we don’t understand about loneliness:
- Why this is happening. Loneliness afflicts the western world in a way that it doesn’t appear to affect other cultures. There are many theories for why this is, but we still don’t have any solid answers. Some point to westerners’ more individualistic culture with less emphasis on family or community. Some blame urbanization and cultural norms around owning your own house, living alone, working independently, etc. Some point to demographic changes: people are having fewer children, moving from city to city more often, and spending less time with the elderly. Some point to the decline in religiosity, arguing that religion has historically been the core of human community and camaraderie. It could be any or all of these.
- How to fix it. Again, there are a lot of theories, but we know little for sure. Connections online and through devices seem to be poor replacements for the emotional and psychological sustenance we get from being around others. Social media and video games are like the diet soda of our emotional well-being—it tastes like we’re hanging out with people, but there are no emotional calories. And in this case, no emotional calories is a bad thing… it’s starving us. Loneliness is both a function of quality and quantity of social interactions. Not only do we need to see people we know often, but we also need to feel some degree of intimacy and trust with those we know.
That said, efforts are being made. In 2018, the UK appointed a “minister of loneliness.” Scandinavian countries such as Denmark are having success with “co-housing policies” where a mixture of elderly, retired people and young families in need of childcare are “matched” into housing units where they share living spaces and support each other. 7
But overall, this appears to be a big issue. It’s an issue to the point where the medical world has taken notice and pharmaceutical companies are even questioning if they could develop a drug to treat loneliness in the same way there are pills to treat depression.8
The Dark Path from Loneliness
But this still doesn’t get at why I think loneliness is the low-key root of so many social and cultural issues today.
Biologically speaking, we’re social animals. We are evolved to live in groups and rely upon one another physically. Therefore, we’ve evolved to rely upon one another emotionally as well.9
Much of the meaning and purpose we derive in life comes via our relationships with other individuals or from our perceived role within society, at large. In fact, it appears that our need for human connection is so strong that much of our ability to form functional beliefs about ourselves and the world is tied to our relationships.10 Like a muscle, you lose empathy if you don’t use it.
And this is why, when people look at what motivates religious fanatics, conspiracy nuts, and political extremists, time and time again, what they find is abiding loneliness.11 Rejection and social isolation radicalize people. In the absence of affection and understanding, people fall back onto delusional ideas of revolution and saving the world to give themselves a sense of purpose.
Hannah Arendt, the mid-20th century philosopher and writer, was a German Jew who successfully escaped the Nazis. After the war, she spent years studying totalitarianism, the rise and fall of fascism, the communist revolutions, the horrors of Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini and Mao—and more importantly, why these leaders became so popular so quickly among their followers despite the terror they invoked.
She then produced a classic book called The Origins of Totalitarianism. The book stretches nearly 500 pages, and in the end, she comes to a startling conclusion: she argued that loneliness makes people susceptible to the contempt and fragmentation that causes functional societies to collapse into extremism and violence.
I will quote her at length here and hope her progeny don’t sue me:
“Loneliness, the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, the preparation of its executioners and its victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and [meaninglessness] which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of the imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality. [The reasoning] which “seizes you as in a vise” appears like a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon. It is the inner coercion whose only content is the strict avoidance of contradiction that seems to confirm a man’s identity outside the relationships with others.”12
Basically, once cut off from empathetic social contact to ground us, the only way we make sense of the world is by adopting radical all-or-nothing views. And within these views, people begin to see a need for radical overthrow of the status quo. They begin to imagine themselves complete victims or destined saviors of society.
Keep in mind, too, that she wrote this in 1951, long before Trump and woke leftists and Twitter were thought to have ruined everything.
And perhaps this is the real threat of social media: it does not necessarily make us lonelier or angrier or more selfish or more spiteful—it simply enables the lonely and angry and selfish and spiteful to self-organize and be heard like never before.
It used to be that if you were a radical Marxist who wished for violent revolution or if you were a quack who thought Bill Gates was implanting microchips in millions of African children, you kinda had to keep that shit to yourself. You’d cause a lot of awkward silences and shifty side-glances until you’d realized you weren’t being invited to kids’ birthday parties anymore.
So… you’d shut the fuck up. And eventually, you’d start to realize, hey, most people are all right. Things are going to be fine.
But now? There’s a forum somewhere full of people with the exact same batshit crazy you have. And what do all humans who have similar yet strange beliefs do when they get together? That’s right, they convince themselves that they’re going to save the fucking world with their knowledge. That is, they go on a crusade. And you and I and everyone else has to listen to them, emboldened and invigorated by their new internet “friends” as they explain to us at Thanksgiving why Jesus was a communist and the movie Armageddon was really a coded message from QAnon explaining why Bruce Willis doesn’t just run a pedophile ring, but he is secretly a sixteen-year-old boy being held prisoner against his wishes, and…
(Fuck, now I’m really going to get sued.)
Anyway, where was I?
Oh yeah! Loneliness…
Perhaps another way to look at Arendt’s argument is that we run the risk of extremists taking over when it becomes easier for radicals with fringe beliefs to mobilize and organize than the moderate majority. Historically, this mobilization of the extremes was enabled by economic depressions and famines and (gulp) pandemics and whatnot. Today, perhaps social media and smartphones have inadvertently made that mobilization more possible.
But who knows… I could be wrong about all of this. The fact is, we still don’t know enough to say for sure.
How to Be Less Lonely
While policymakers struggle to address loneliness as a social issue, there are things we can do as individuals to help us feel less lonely individually. Here are a few evidence-based tips to help you feel less alone in this cold, cold world.13
1. Join Groups
Research shows that it’s far more useful to tackle feelings of loneliness by pursuing social groups rather than one-on-one interactions.14 For example, researchers have found that one-on-one visits to the lonely elderly don’t work very well,15 whereas group discussions do.16
This is important because most of us usually try to attack our loneliness by reaching out to individuals. We imagine that the problem is that we don’t have more one-on-one interactions in our life when really, loneliness seems to be more driven by group affiliations.
The easiest way to join a group? Find an activity. The more participatory and active the group, the better.17 Research found, for example, classes involving things such as dancing, swimming, gymnastics, etc. decreased loneliness more than classes where everyone sat around twiddling their thumbs and talking about stuff.18
So, find a crowd. Find an activity.
2. Improve social skills
Okay, so you’re in a group, madly gyrating to some sweet ass disco tunes, but now what? Turns out it’s not enough to simply show up. You also need to be able to connect with people.19
If loneliness is a function of both the quality and quantity of our social interactions, group activities can take care of the quantity, but our social skills are necessary to take care of the quality.
If you’re not able to connect easily with others, if you struggle to have conversations, to get to know people, to reveal details about yourself, it doesn’t matter how many people you talk to, you’re going to come away feeling unfulfilled.
(Note: If you’d like help developing your social skills, I provide a course on this site called “The Connection Course.”)
3. Support Others
Many people approach their social interactions in terms of what they get from them. They think, “What will this person do for me?” “How can *I* feel better from this social interaction?”
This backfires. Your selfish intentions bleed through into your words and actions and people sense that you’re a bit of a conceited assface.
Instead, approach social interactions with the mindset of, “What can I give this person?” “How can I make them feel better?”
Ultimately, people like being around people who make them feel good. If you focus on making the other person feel good rather than yourself, you stand a better chance of making a strong connection with the person.20
What’s amazing about this giving mindset is that we tend to find more value and happiness in interactions where we give more. It’s like that old cliche, “You get what you give.” Well, it’s true. The more we give to others, the more satisfied and loved we tend to feel ourselves.21
4. Find Happiness in Solitude
Earlier in the article, I mentioned a survey that found more young people report experiencing loneliness than older people.22 This surprised me, at first. But then the researchers explained why:
“Almost 50% reported that loneliness could be positive […] with the reasons given for this including opportunities for personal growth, the enjoyment of being alone and knowledge that the feeling would pass.”23
It turned out, older people weren’t less isolated than younger people, they were more comfortable with the isolation.
This is going to sound counterintuitive, but it’s perhaps the most important point of all: loneliness is not just a function of your social interactions, but it’s also a function of your attitude towards your social interactions.
You can feel intensely lonely despite spending all-day, every day with other people. You can feel completely satisfied spending months alone.
Loneliness and solitude are not the same thing. One can happen without the other.
Much of your sense of loneliness stems from your mindset about your own solitude. Solitude can be great. It can be enlightening. It can be freeing—after all, there’s no one to impress.
Maybe the key to combating loneliness as a society is not so much to reduce it, but to embrace and learn from it.
After all, it’s easiest to connect with others when you feel most connected with yourself.
- See: Verdery, A. M., & Margolis, R. (2017). Projections of white and black older adults without living kin in the United States, 2015 to 2060. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(42), 11109–11114.↵
- For a summary of surveys, see: Renken, Elena (2020, January) “3 Out of 5 Americans Are Lonely,” NPR.org.↵
- See: BBC Radio 4 (2018, January) “16-24 Year Olds are the Loneliest Age Group According to BBC Radio 4 Survey.” The BBC.↵
- This claim comes from Douglas Nemecek, MD, the lead physician of the famous Cigna Loneliness Index, the major loneliness survey conducted in the US each year. You can see a summary of the results of that survey here.↵
- Matthews, T., Danese, A., Caspi, A., Fisher, H. L., Goldman-Mellor, S., Kepa, A., … Arseneault, L. (2018). Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study. Psychological Medicine, 1–10.↵
- For a summary of these studies, see: Tate, Nick (2018, May) “Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking, as Health Risk.” WebMD.com.↵
- See: Larsen, H. G. (2019). Three phases of Danish cohousing: tenure and the development of an alternative housing form. Housing Studies, 1–23.↵
- This strikes me as a terrible idea. Something about making people happy to socially isolate themselves feels like it tears away something fundamental about being human.↵
- See: Berscheid, E. (2003). The human’s greatest strength: Other humans. In L. G. Aspinwall & U. M. Staudinger (Eds.), A psychology of human strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology (p. 37–47). American Psychological Association.↵
- See: Williams, Daniel. (2019). Socially Adaptive Belief.↵
- See: Loza, W. (2007). The psychology of extremism and terrorism: A Middle-Eastern perspective. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12(2), 141–155.↵
- Arendt, Hannah (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, NY: Harcourt Publishing. pp. 477-478.↵
- Masi, C. M., Chen, H.-Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219–266.↵
- Yanguas, J., Pinazo-Henandis, S., & Tarazona-Santabalbina, F. J. (2018). The complexity of loneliness. Acta Bio Medica : Atenei Parmensis, 89(2), 302–314.↵
- Cattan, M., White, M., Bond, J., & Learmouth, A. (2005). Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: A systematic review of health promotion interventions. Ageing & Society, 25(1), 41–67.↵
- Anderson, L. (1985). Intervention against loneliness in a group of elderly women: An impact evaluation. Social Science & Medicine, 20(4), 355–364.↵
- Dickens, A. P., Richards, S. H., Greaves, C. J., & Campbell, J. L. (2011). Interventions targeting social isolation in older people: A systematic review. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 647.↵
- Hopman-Rock, M., & Westhoff, M. H. (2002). Development and Evaluation of “Aging Well and Healthily”: A Health-Education and Exercise Program for Community-Living Older Adults. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 10(4), 364–381.↵
- And we’re talking face-to-face connection here, not online.↵
- Note that this advice also applies well to sex.↵
- For more on this, see the TED Talk, “Helping Others Makes Us Happier — But it Matters How We Do It.”↵
- Hosie, R. (2018, October 1). Young people lonelier than other age groups, new study finds. The Independent.↵
- Victor, C., Qualter, P., & Barreto, M. (2019). What Is Loneliness: Insights From the BBC Loneliness Experiment. Innovation in Aging, 3, S373–S373.↵