The Science of Loneliness

In recent years, researchers around the world have warned that we are facing a loneliness epidemic. In 2017, the American Psychological Association’s annual convention focused on data that reveals loneliness and social isolation pose an equal, if not greater, danger to public health than other, more commonly discussed risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and substance abuse—all factors that, by comparison, take up large amounts of public resources and attention.

What’s more, in a 2015 study of more than 3 million participants, researchers at Brigham Young University found that increased social connection is linked to a 50 percent reduced risk of premature death. Put another way: when it comes to a heightened risk of mortality, loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Living alone is also on the rise globally, according to a number of nations’ census data. In the US, as of 2012, nearly 30 percent of the population lives alone; similar numbers are reported in the UK as of 2014; and in Norway that number sat at 40 percent in 2012. While it’s true that not every person who lives alone will feel lonely, researchers have also found that, when it comes to health effects, there is little difference between isolation and the perception of loneliness.

If someone, he says, is experiencing chronic loneliness—the type that may lead them to describe themselves as being lonely for their entire life—it might be time to turn to a mental health professional. “Not to fix you,” he adds. “Not to straighten your head. But to help you understand why you feel lonely.” The irony is that talking about loneliness is one of the best tools for managing it and understanding how it manifests in a person’s life, whether it’s through depression, poor eating habits, or something they cannot even name. Doing this deeper work does not mean loneliness will suddenly vanish from their life, but talking about it can keep it from killing them.

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