The Loneliness Epidemic

By Sarenka Smith

Are people really lonelier than every before? And how does that relate to our mental health? Get the answers here.
“The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.”Norman Cousins

The other week, I found myself doing something that I feel embarrassed about: or, at the very least, embarrassed about sharing publicly. I scrolled through my phone to see how many people I had texted or called that day, a sense of anxiety and unease overtaking me as I did the (easy) mental math in my head.

This wasn’t the first time I had done this, and I doubt it will be the last. In fact, I’ve done it almost every day for the past month, my heart sinking each time. Because in the past two years, my life has become – or at least felt – incredibly small, almost painfully so.

The increasing sense of isolation that started in 2020 as the pandemic took hold, hit me in a profoundly staggering way after several years. This was further reinforced by remote work, a concept that I appreciate and value for its flexibility but also recognize for its drawbacks.

I’ve searched for language to try and describe what I’ve been feeling and it dawned on me.

I’m lonely.

As a 30-year-old woman, I’m not alone. My roommates and close friends make similar comments, seemingly emboldened by my own honesty (read: sadness). One of my best friends is considering making an international move, telling me that she feels “burned out.” Among my other friends, I’ve noticed:

  • Lowered energy levels
  • A quiet, melancholy mood
  • Not going out as much
  • Isolating more

And while there is a marked difference between being alone and feeling lonely, we’re feeling both.

Feelings of Loneliness Are Increasing

Research from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, further confirms that this feeling of loneliness is not restricted to my friend group. Rising feelings of social isolation are most noticeable among older teens and young adults.

  • The report specifically suggests that over 1 in 3 Americans face “serious loneliness” during the pandemic.
  • Around half of the young adults surveyed reported that no one had recently “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are faring.

Other studies suggest that the United States is experiencing what has been termed “an epidemic of loneliness,” including a report from the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA).

Additional research indicates that it’s not just affecting us emotionally (i.e. mood issues and anxiety). A lack of human connection can be more harmful to our health than smoking and high blood pressure.

Loneliness isn’t just a feeling – it has steep costs.

Why Are People So Lonely?

Scientist Matthew Lieberman explains how and why humans are wired to connect, using data across many different studies of mammals to suggest that we are indelibly, markedly, profoundly shaped by our social environment. When our social bonds or connections are threatened, we suffer.

In a nutshell? Our well-being is dependent on our connections with others. While Aristotle once wrote that man is by nature a social animal, a lot of our societal trends de-emphasize connection – particularly in the West. We focus on independence, autonomy, and taking care of ourselves. This is why we have to pay attention to the science emphasizing that social connections are more important now than ever.

“These levels of loneliness are heartbreaking. We have big holes in our social fabric,” says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School. “We need to mobilize coherently and strategically to assure that far fewer Americans are stranded and disconnected.”

How to Stop Feeling So Lonely

I try to think about how I can reduce my own loneliness. Here's what I've tried:

  • I'm making more effort to reach out to at least one person a day with whom I haven’t spoken for a while.
  • I'm planning more outings with my roommates so that I get out more frequently.
  • I'm reading more about how to connect with others and how important it is.

Loneliness isn’t just about me or you. It’s about the entire social infrastructure in our larger communities. Loneliness reminds me that I don’t just have a commitment to myself. I also have a commitment to the people around me.

I'm trying to develop strategies that not only help me cope with loneliness but also help my network.

We Can Reduce Loneliness

I’m one person in an entire global ecosystem – and I need to remember that. Maybe we can work together to make small changes in our communities, in the hopes that it will create a sea of change that extends more broadly to the public as a whole.

What are self-defeating thoughts and behaviors you have that fuel loneliness?

Can you pick up the phone and call someone who may be experiencing loneliness?

Will you make an effort to help restore our common good?

In my fellowship Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re often told: “it’s not about you, it’s about the fellowship.” It’s not about me; it’s about us.

We're in this, together.

Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…