What Is Chronic Loneliness and Why Is It So Threatening?

What Is Chronic Loneliness and Why Is It So Threatening?

By all odds, my reader, your grandparents—or theirs—lived with or near their extended family. Moreover, the patterns of your family members’ social lives were fashioned by the communities into which they were born, where they lived and worked throughout their lives, and where they died and were buried. Humans had always lived this way; we are that kind of mammal. That, no doubt, is why the word “loneliness” only came into the English language in about 1800 —before that, in communities across the globe, there simply wasn’t enough social space in which to become lonely.

We certainly don’t live like that anymore, particularly here in the United States: by 2018, 28% of U.S. households were single-person households. Ever fewer of us live in the same city as our cousins, and even siblings live increasingly far from one another. By 2010 35% of American adults self-identified as chronically lonely—up from 20% in 1990. More concerning still, the trend toward increasing disconnection is accelerating: recent studies show that by age group, the loneliest age tranche in our country is not the elderly-- as one might suppose—it is Generation Z and the Millennials. On top of this, a 2019 study of 130 countries found that the U.S. has the highest rate of any of the 130 countries of children living in single-parent households. Given that at the time of that study just under a quarter of U.S. children lived with only one parent–- that means that about 18 million children were being put at a significantly increased risk of developing chronic loneliness during their lifetimes.

What Is Chronic Loneliness?

Chronic loneliness is to ordinary loneliness what clinical depression is to sadness. We are all lonely and sad from time to time—how could we not be, with the death of our grandparents, followed by the loss of our parents, and then—one by one—the disappearance of our cousins and friends and colleagues and neighbors as they move out of our lives in this highly mobile era, or, as I am now old enough to experience, as they come to the end of their days. 

 Even these inescapable and foreseeable lonely times and sad periods that we all endure cause great pain and much suffering. Ask yourself, my reader, which hurts more, a broken arm or a broken heart? 

Chronic loneliness, in contrast, goes well beyond pain. It sickens. It kills. Chronically lonely patients with major systemic diseases decline and succumb to their ailments far more rapidly than do patients involved in well-functioning interpersonal networks. Disconnection also has a major impact on mental health: lonely persons experience far higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Not surprisingly, the life span of chronically lonely persons is significantly reduced, as numerous studies have documented in detail.

I do want to note that the onslaught of loneliness is not reserved to the United States. Recent warnings by public health officials in the United Kingdom that chronic loneliness had become a major public health issue led to the creation of an entirely new ministerial office: there is now a Minister for Loneliness.

Who Are All These Chronically Lonely People?

People arrive at chronic loneliness along two quite distinct pathways. First, and most obvious, there are those who are objectively disconnected. One well-known study of the chronically lonely reported that nearly a quarter of study subjects reported that in the six months just prior to being interviewed, they had spoken to no one about anything important. Imagine that. Of course, living a solitary life doesn’t necessarily mean one is lonely: some disconnected individuals live alone quite on purpose and thrive in their solitude. But many more are not so fortunate: those who live alone not by choice but by circumstance, all too often experience life as a lonely venture, and they report being overwhelmed with a crushing sadness at their isolation. They have no one to turn to. I’ve set down the details of four of their remarkable stories in my 2016 book, “Four Seasons of Loneliness: A Lawyer’s Case Stories.”

The other half of chronically lonely persons are not at all isolated. Objectively, these individuals live enmeshed in multiple interpersonal networks, but subjectively they feel as detached and cut off as do those who are entirely disconnected. How can people who are constantly among others—people whose lives are interwoven with the lives of their spouse, their children, their colleagues, their neighbors, their team members—nonetheless experience their life as desperately lonesome? That answer is that these individuals are not so much disconnected, as they are misconnected. Studies show that many such persons lack the relational skills and self-confidence required to reach out to connect meaningfully and deeply with others in their lives. These chronically lonely persons have others to reach out to. But they don’t. You can find five of their astonishing stories in my 2020 book, “Surrounded By Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness and Litigation.”

Woman walks up lighted stairs

Can We Address the Problem of Chronic Loneliness?

Is there a way to somehow “tackle” the problem of chronic loneliness? Can this steadily increasing public health threat be addressed at scale? I’m sorry to report that to the extent that chronic loneliness is a function of numerous deep structures of our post-industrial society, it is not at all clear how the endemic of loneliness described earlier can be resolved or even significantly reduced. Community life is largely a thing of the past, as is the institution of extended family. Even the “nuclear” family of Ozzie and Harriet barely survives: marriage rates have tumbled, divorce rates have skyrocketed, birth rates are falling off the table, and in 2018, 28% of U.S. adult households were single-family households. Very little in our built or social environment encourages collective or cooperative efforts: the structure of our work, the nature of our commuting, the divisiveness of rural, suburban, and exurban neighborhoods from urban centers, the creation of gated communities, the ever-increasing wealth and income inequalities, the persistence and recent politicization of divisions along racial and ethnic lines, our ideology of individualism—all of these and scores of other contributing factors serve to divide us from one another in so many, many ways.

If the news is this bleak about the ever-increasing social generation of chronic loneliness, is there hope for any of us? Are there at least techniques that we as individuals can use to safeguard ourselves before our everyday loneliness degenerates into chronic loneliness? Yes!  On this front, there is good news indeed! Just as we have learned to monitor our eating and watch our exercise in a society of industrial food and sedentary work, so we need to also examine the status of our relationships, and work on improving our relational skills. And better yet: we now have methods to efficiently undertake an assessment of just how our individual relationships are faring. The next two postings in this series of articles will provide you with these tools, and guidance on how to use them.

So, are you game to assess the quality of your interpersonal relationships? If so, please see the follow-on three articles that will appear in subsequent issues of MP: you’ll find both the assessment tools referenced above, a discussion of how to interpret your findings, and an analysis of how you might then proceed to strengthen the bonds that connect you to the significant others in your life.

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