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Loneliness and the fate of America

Feeling depressed? A little down? Feel like you need a prescription for an antidepressant? You may actually be lonely. NO, not lonely! Not that! It seems that Americans have difficulty even recognizing loneliness, let alone accepting it as a problem. It’s just not in our world view. We think we’re depressed and that consuming a pill will cure us, but in fact, we may just need more time with people.

Loneliness is increasing. An AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) study found that of people ages 45 and up, 35% are chronically lonely. That’s compared with 20% ten years ago. And surprisingly, it’s people in their 40’s and 50’s who are suffering the most. 43% of adults 45-49 are lonely, 41% or those 50-59; 32% of 60-69, and 25% of those 70 and older. Our number of friends has been on the decline. In 2004 a quarter of the population had no one they could confide in or turn to in a crisis. (In 1985 it was 10%)

But, you might think, so what? There are lots of worse problems —like war and poverty. (Could even they be linked to loneliness? Maybe in a lonely society we lose our ability to care about others, contributing to war and poverty.) But loneliness isn’t just unpleasant — it’s one of the biggest predictors for health, happiness, and longevity. Studies have found that loneliness even increases the chances of things like diabetes and sleep disorders and Alzheimer’s.

Lately there’s been a rise in depression and anxiety in young people, and loneliness may be playing a role. Some think it’s because kids are forced to pay so much attention to achievement and success instead of social ties. In highly competitive places like Palo Alto, California, teen suicides are up. In like manner, some argue that children’s depression is a result of declining free play. Kids don’t get to spend their days riding their bikes around town with their friends or playing hide-and-go-seek as so many of us did.

Part of the cause of our loneliness is that work hours have increased and we’re exhausted. (Probably why the people in their 40s and 50s are the loneliest — with both careers and families they have no time at all.) But ultimately our loneliness comes from a competitive, cutthroat culture. It feels like we just don’t care for each other anymore. There’s been so much ugliness this election — something people care about, as Jon Stewart demonstrated with his Rally for Sanity. And we’re all pitted against each other because there are so few jobs. Unless we begin to have some regulations on corporations things won’t change. We’ve got to put the well being of people and the planet over the chance for a few to make egregious sums of money.

In fact, studies have found that our longevity is linked to wealth inequality, and the gap between the rich and the rest of us just keeps growing. A recent study found that our life expectancy has dropped to 49th, whereas in 1999 we were 24th. (We were number one in the Fifties when our wealth gap was small.) Our greedy culture breeds the loneliness that shortens our lives.

We must find ways to develop a society that encourages social ties! And actually, there is a lot happening. For instance, the “live local “ movement that advocates strong, sustainable neighborhoods. We’re lucky in Seattle because we have been leaders in the sustainable neighborhood movement with dozens of neighborhood organizations like Sustainable Wallingford, Sustainable Ballard, Sustainable Greenwood Phinney. We’re all involved in a network called SCALLOPS: Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound ( We’re also a part of a related movement —the Transition Town movement, also strong in Seattle ( And of course, check out the activities at the Phinney Neighborhood Center, a leader in neighborhood community.

The great thing about the problem of loneliness is that it’s something you can take action on immediately. It’s hard to change the workplace or get city hall to respond, but you can take a walk in your neighborhood right now! Say hello! Stop and chat! Your spirits will rise immediately! And you’ll be helping to create a new culture in which we learn to care about each other, one in which we understand that “we’re all in this together,” a culture that puts caring first.

Editorial Notes: Cecile has convinced me of the centrality of community and conversation to our dilemma. She is currently developing techniques and group exercises to help people regain these skills. Cecile is only one of a growing number of writers and researchers who have reached the same conclusion. See, for example, the book "Plentude" by Juliet Schor (talk (video)). Or see the talk by Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," on social capital. -BA

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