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Whither Loneliness?

As the United States continues past the two-month mark under widespread social distancing and self-isolation orders imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, attention has naturally been drawn to the issue of loneliness. On Monday Vox ran an interview with former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, whose new book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World continues his public argument that the United States has long been suffering a loneliness “social epidemic” with medical, social, and spiritual consequences.

When Murthy first raised the issue to public attention in 2017, the Social Capital Project investigated the subject in our brief “All the Lonely Americans?”, noting that “the problem of loneliness is inherently interesting to us.” Unfortunately, despite widespread media circulation of claims that the United States was significantly more lonely now than in the past, we were unable to find documentation that supported those headlines in a persuasive and rigorous fashion. As leading sociologist Claude Fischer put it after investigating the same question in his 2011 book Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970, “For all the interest in loneliness there appears to be little national survey data that would permit us to draw trends.”

One of the most-cited studies in the recent loneliness literature is an examination of the General Social Survey (GSS) that found that from 1985 to 2004, the number of core discussion partners, or confidants, had decreased by approximately 33 percent from three to two, and that the proportion of those reporting no confidants at all nearly tripled to 23 percent. Fischer found the underlying survey methodology problematic, however, and one of the three co-authors issued a follow-up paper re-doing the work and finding more modest results. The rest of the surveys cited for the loneliness epidemic are scattered in time and method and cannot be reliably used together to establish a clear loneliness increase over time.

The shortcomings of the existing historical data make it difficult to rigorously establish findings of any sort about American trends in loneliness, a shortcoming that stands in stark contrast to the widespread public attention and headlines that the subject consistently receives. Fischer even pieces together evidence suggesting that Americans have largely adapted to the social dislocations of recent decades and keep social connection at similar levels, just in different forms.

Whatever the ultimate historical trend in loneliness over the past decades, though, it would seem facially likely that the United States is currently experiencing an acute “loneliness shock” from the present pandemic, as socialization outside the household has been strictly limited for public health protection. Should loneliness have anywhere near the deleterious consequences psychologists suggest, that could very well be another source of harm that policymakers will have to recognize and mitigate. Unfortunately, the paucity of existing loneliness survey data makes it difficult to obtain any useful information to guide those policy decisions in the present moment.

Now, then, would be an extremely opportune time to remedy the shortcomings of our available data and to begin deploying rigorous measurements of loneliness and social attachment. Even if results are not immediately available to guide reopening decisions, the natural experiment conditions produced by the coronavirus could provide powerful and rigorous insight into how loneliness functions in present-day America, as well as how it is mitigated or intensified.


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