All The Lonely People . . . Are There Really More of Them Than Before?

November 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Loneliness seems to have an irresistible appeal. Last weekend, it was Arthur Brooks in the New York Times (here) bringing us the bad news: “America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness.”

The consequences of this loneliness are serious, says Brooks. Riffing off Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R Nebraska) recent book, he lists suicide, drug overdoses, the mail bombs to Trump’s opponents, the mass killing in Squirrel Hill, and above all, political polarization. The title of Sasse’s book is Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.  The title of Brooks’s op-ed is “How Loneliness is Tearing America Apart.” We now live, he says, in “a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation.”

Brooks’s other source of information Besides Sasse is a report (here) issued last May by Cigna, the insurance company, based on an online survey of 20,000 Americans. It shows, as Brooks says, that “most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”

Brooks is not the first loneliness spotter to cry “epidemic.” Back in April, a month before the Cigna report was released, the Times’s other Brooks, David, warned that “Facebook and other social media companies are feeding this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.” Psychology Today ran an article “Epidemic of Loneliness” in 2009. The term has cropped up in the popular press for decades. Google nGrams shows the phrase first appearing in books in the early 1960s, taking a giant leap and fall in 1980, but holding steady since then.

But every so often, a Brooks or a Sasse runs in breathless with news of a dangerous loneliness epidemic (the nation's “number one health crisis” according to Sasse) —  all apparently unaware that sentries on the loneliness watch ten, thirty, and even sixty years earlier had issued the same alarm.

True, loneliness and social isolation are bad for your physical and mental health, as the Cigna report and much previous research confirms. But Brooks is claiming something else — that the increase in political polarization has been caused, at least in part, by an increase in loneliness. The only trouble with this idea is that there is no evidence that loneliness has been increasing.

Calling Claude Fischer. For years, with each rediscovery of a loneliness epidemic, he has added historical and methodological information in an attempt to calm the waters, usually to no avail. Nevertheless, he persists. As he says in a blog post (“Loneliness Scare Again… and Again… and…” ) inspired by one of the Brookses, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And in fact, Fischer is no longer a solitary voice crying in the wilderness. Yes, journos on deadline and Senators on the make ignore him, but now more official sources are sometimes echoing what Fischer has been saying. An article in CQ Researcher, an offshoot of Congressional Quarterly, cites sociologists Fischer and Eric Klinenberg, both skeptical about any increase in loneliness. And Sasse’s Senate colleague Mike Lee (R Utah), or whoever is doing the research and writing on his Webpage, says, “It is not at all clear that loneliness has increased over the last several decades.”

Still, we get articles like the one by Arthur Brooks, and Brooks is a man who respects sociological research. Why, in spite of all the evidence, does it seem as though Americans are getting lonelier and lonelier? I have an idea, which I will leave for a latter post.

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