The Problem of Lonely Americans

Person sitting by a tree looking lonely and sad

Christian Ditaputrama / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Despite most people having a phone in their hands and active social media accounts, the sense of alienation from other humans is real and growing.

Covid-19 self-distancing has created a situation where many people feel more stress and isolation than ever. Americans are lonelier, which is a sad reality for a society so proud of its constant connectivity. Despite having a phone in your hand (and checking it 46 times on average per day), chances are you feel lonely more frequently than previous generations ever did.

A study by the American Association of Retired Persons in 2010 found that the percentage of Americans feeling lonely on a regular basis was close to 40 to 45 percent – a significant increase from the estimated 10 to 20 percent from studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

So what’s really going on?

Fortune spoke with John Cacioppo, who has been studying loneliness for more than 20 years. Cacioppo is the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2009).

Cacioppo believes that more Americans are lonely because people aren’t as closely bound as they once were. We tend to move away from our hometowns, making it harder to create the same generational connections, which in turn reduces social constraints. We turn to apps like Tinder, eHarmony, and Match to seek quick-fix connections and experiences that never used to exist.

“In the last 15 years or so, many of those face-to-face connections have been replaced with social networking. We’ve found that if you use social networking as a way to promote face-to-face conversation, it lowers loneliness. But if you use [it as] a destination, as a replacement for the face-to-face, it increases loneliness.”

This has a serious impact. Not only do lonely people have trouble sleeping, suffer from high blood pressure, and become more susceptible to viruses, but Cacioppo points out that loneliness also increases the odds of early death by 26 percent. Death does not come from loneliness itself, but by accentuating conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, accidents, and suicides, making them more likely to strike earlier.

What can be done?

Cacioppo speaks about a new steroid drug soon to start testing in hopes of combating the symptoms of loneliness; but let’s be honest – that sounds like a Band-Aid solution for a problem that really needs to have its root causes examined. Most important is to catch loneliness before it morphs into depression. If you feel lonely, try some of the following tactics and you’ll hopefully start feeling better soon:

Get out to do something. Staying at home can create a sense of isolation.

Get some exercise. Get those endorphins flowing. It will take your mind off your sense of loneliness and dissipate negative emotions. You’ll have something feel good about afterward, which will spill into other areas of your life.

Connect with another human. Call a friend on the phone, instead of texting. Don’t check in with people over Facebook; invite them out for a drink instead.

Stay off social media for a while. Minimize the number of times you open the apps. Focus on living your real life, not watching the lives of others as you scroll down your newsfeed. Remember, it is always over-glamorized and is a recipe for certain disgruntlement with one’s own seemingly dull life by comparison, even if it’s not true. This fits well with Cacioppo’s advise to “retrain the way you think about other people [and to] try to be more grateful, more positive, more discerning.”