Lifting the veil on America’s loneliness epidemic
Loneliness is both a public health problem and a social issue
Are you lonely? If so, you are not alone.
A recent survey of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of people suffer from feelings of loneliness. The evaluation of loneliness was measured by an often-used score of 43 or higher on the University of California, Los Angeles “Loneliness Scale,” a 20-item questionnaire developed to measure feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Loneliness is both a health issue and a social issue and, often times, subjective. “We view a person’s physical, mental and social health as being entirely connected,” David Cordani, president and chief executive officer of Cigna, said in a statement. “We’re seeing a lack of human connection, which ultimately leads to a lack of vitality,” he said, “or a disconnect between mind and body.”
The findings build on previous research that showed loneliness is on the rise among younger people, and is not just a critical issue for older people. Regardless of the age of the person affected, loneliness is just as much of a health risk as being obese. An American Psychological Association study released in August concluded that lonely people are at a greater risk for premature death.
Here’s what else the Cigna report found:
• Only around half of Americans (53%) say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions, including an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family.
• Members of Generation Z (adults aged 18-22 for the purposes of this study) say they are the loneliest generation and claim to be in worse health than older generations.
• Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness, as heavy users have a loneliness score (43.5) that is only slightly higher than people who say they never use social media (41.7).
So what’s behind this loneliness in America? Here are some theories:
Retired and overworked people face lonely days and nights
Of course, as people age and lose family members and friends, and cut down on work, they are susceptible to loneliness. A 2012 University of California, San Francisco study found that people aged 60 years old and older who said they felt lonely were 45% more at risk of dying earlier than those who did not feel lonely, and were also more prone to mental and physical decline.
More surprising: That study found 43% of older adults felt lonely, even though only 18% actually lived alone. For older people, this raises questions about the quality of institutional and community care. Loneliness, the researchers said, is more a feeling of isolation and desolation, while depression is a mental health issue where people may feel hopeless and suffer from an extreme lack of energy.
“Mandatory overtime and involuntary long hours are a growing problem particularly for some segments of the labor force,” according to “Overworked America,” a 2016 report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a left-leaning research center. Workers who are not paid overtime are more than twice as likely to report working more than 40 hours a week, it said.
People attempt to feel good through consumerism
But why do so many younger people say they suffer from loneliness? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living spiritual movement and who lives in Bangalore, India, told MarketWatch, “Our consumer culture doesn’t help. When people are fed up with their routine, and life seems to have no aim and meaning, then people do get depressed, despite having so many physical comforts.”
Spending money on experiences rather than stuff may also help stave off isolation, other research suggests. Materialism can lead to loneliness, which can lead to more materialism, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Rik Pieters, a professor of marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Researchers call this theory the “loneliness loop.”
After studying 2,500 consumers over six years, Pieters found that people who valued possessions as a sign of material success felt more lonely, while those who sought possessions for sheer joy actually felt less lonely. What’s more, people who are lonely are less likely to conform and favor movies on Netflix NFLX, +0.46% with fewer stars than those who say they’re not lonely.
Generation X-ers are struggling to regain their wealth
Generation X-ers are struggling to keep up with a loss of wealth and income since the Great Recession, and have less time to spend with family. As wages play catchup with inflation, many people work overtime or two jobs to make ends meet. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the industrialized world that does not require employers to offer paid parental leave.
More people live (and eat) alone. More than half of all meals (57%) are eaten alone, a 2014 study by market researcher NPD Group concluded. And 34% of Americans spend dinner time alone. Nearly 30% of households in the U.S. are comprised of one person. It’s the second most common household type after married couples without children.
There are, however, many actions people can take to combat loneliness, including getting adequate sleep and physical activity, Cigna CI, +0.40% found. Respondents who said they worked just the right amount are least likely to be lonely: Those who work more than desired had a 3-point rise in their loneliness score, while those who work less than desired showed a 6-point increase.
Social isolation and social media go hand-in-hand
People who spent the most time on social media had twice the odds of having greater perceived social isolation, according to a 2017 study of more than 1,700 people published in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine.” Social isolation, a state in which an individual lacks a sense of social belonging and fulfilling relationships, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality.
Over-dependence on social networks as a social outlet can also lead to what some doctors call “Facebook Depression,” according to a 2010 report, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Family,” by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another report released last year found that the more you use Facebook, the less satisfied you feel about life.
Excessive browsing can also be a problem. A 2015 study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking suggested young people who are heavy users of social media—spending more than two hours a day—are more likely to report poor mental health and psychological distress, symptoms of which include anxiety and depression.
More Americans are turning to prescription drugs
People are being overprescribed drugs to deal with both physical and emotional problems. In a survey released last year of 1,947 American adults, more than 50% said they regularly take prescription medications, according to Consumer Reports. The total number of prescriptions filled for adults and children in the U.S. increased by 85% from 1997 to 2016, while the U.S. population only increased by 21% in the same period, the study found.
What’s more, over 70% of U.S. employers are dealing with the direct impact of prescription drug misuse in their workplaces, according to a survey of more than 500 companies with 50 or more employees released by the National Safety Council last year. The survey, billed as the first of its kind in the U.S., found that although a similar percentage of employers say prescription drug use is a disease that requires treatment.
The percentage of workers testing positive for illicit drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines among the U.S. workforce increased to the largest percentage in a decade in 2015, according to a workplace urine drug test of more than 9.5 million tests of urine samples, among other tests, by Quest Diagnostics, a company that provides national clinical laboratory tests on potential and/or current employees.
Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch's personal-finance editor and The Moneyist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.
We Want to Hear from You
Join the conversation