The past few years have seen a resurgence in attention to the problem of loneliness in America, and in other developed nations. Even in just the past few weeks, we’ve seen some prominent journalistic attention to the issue—from an Economist piece about loneliness in London to some reviews of an important new book by Senator Ben Sasse that takes up this problem among others. Loneliness has seemed to a lot of us like one of the ways to understand the pressures and problems that confront our society and politics at this point.
This kind of attention is valuable and important, and there is no question that as the institutions that hold communities together have frayed we have had to come to terms with just how much we human beings depend upon robust social connections for our health and flourishing.
But is loneliness in fact getting worse in America? It’s important to try to treat that as an empirical question to the extent possible, and to think through what it is we are trying to find out when we ask it.
The staff of the Joint Economic Committee in Congress, which has done some extraordinarily important work on social capital over the last few years, recently published a very useful little paper on this question, trying to wrestle with the available evidence. Their ultimate conclusion—which is the conclusion that good social scientists generally reach when confronted with a big question—is that more evidence is necessary to really get at an answer. But their dissection of the evidence that does exist and the claims often made around it should give us some pause. They note at the end, with some restraint, in summarizing their analysis:
The discussion of loneliness has suggested to media consumers and policymakers that it is an epidemic—that loneliness has increased substantially in recent years and is a pressing problem in need of urgent attention. These claims, however, are based on a flawed interpretation of the research literature. In fact, there is little evidence that loneliness has increased.
This analysis, the evidence they take up, and the citations they offer to help you dig deeper, are really worth your while. I was left thinking that we talk about loneliness as we do because we lack the vocabulary to describe the kinds of problems that arise when institutions grow weak and communities unravel. Those problems are very real and they are near the heart of what is happening in America now, but maybe they are not the same thing as loneliness—and maybe seeing that can help us better understand them.