Addressing the Loneliness Epidemic


The solution to the loneliness epidemic is hard to implement but relatively easy to postulate. It is actually one of the easier problems to solve, in some sense, because it only takes a two-step solution. The solution goes thus: Are you lonely? Get a friend. The difficulty in implementation clues us into two opposite things. First of all, it clues us in to the fact that the problem might not be loneliness. If a generation is full of lonely people, it should be pretty easy to find ways to connect them. Head nod to apps like Tinder, Facebook, Instagram, and the like. Because it seems like the problem just keeps getting worse, we can say that a focus on "loneliness" is a diversion, in a significant way. Or, as the second issue goes, the problem is not a problem at all.

Let's take the first issue. If loneliness is not the issue, then what is it? I by no means have the answer, and I suspect the solution includes a portfolio of different variables, but an underrated factor is people's desire and striving for happiness. A 2012 PubMed paper finds:

The more people value happiness, the lonelier they feel on a daily basis (assessed over 2 weeks with diaries)

In other words,

striving for happiness might damage people's connections with others and make them lonely.

Meaning striving to become happier makes us more lonely. In no other generation is this more evident than ours. Despite the various ways to connect with one another, we seek the happiness of personal gains, which makes forming relationships incredibly challenging. Meaning, why go make a friend when I could play video games?

Another version of the view that loneliness is not the main issue is that loneliness is an adaptive trait. Viewing it this way makes any generation experiencing "loneliness" a generation of healthy individuals at this margin. Meaning, feeling lonely when you are isolated is a normal thing. If you don't feel lonely, you and everyone around you should be concerned. I would like to stress here, as Noreena Hertz does, that there is a significant difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone makes you more likely to be lonely; however, it does not necessarily mean you are lonely.

The other side of this view is that loneliness is not a problem at all. The softer version of that argument goes thus, although loneliness is a serious issue, there is no epidemic of loneliness. Esteban Ortiz-Ospina posited a more robust version of this argument in 2019 (I'll be interested to see how his views have evolved on this topic if at all). Esteban writes:

There is an epidemic of headlines that claim we are experiencing a "loneliness epidemic," but there is no empirical support for the fact that loneliness is increasing, let alone spreading at epidemic rates.

This view is definitely one that everyone has to keep in their mental model of this topic. In a world where this is true, we would all rely a lot less on the crutch of "loneliness" being a widespread problem, and all adopt more personal responsibility.



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