The Science of Loneliness

We're more lonely today than at any other point in recorded history—and it isn't good for us

woman in a parka on a dock looking out onto a lake
iStock / Borut Trdina

When people ask me what my greatest fear is, I lie. I tell them about my fear of snakes. I say I have nightmares of being stuck in Fear Factor, lying for a full minute in a pit filled with writhing serpents, just so I can win $1 million. That fear is real. I have those nightmares. But the truth is, my greatest fear is being lonely. In particular, I fear dying alone.

I fear the presence of loneliness. The way it feels. What it may signal to people about who I am. Whether or not it leaves traces of itself on me for people to see. Whether or not people view me as the lonely girl. How sometimes it seems to yawn across rooms filled with people. How it has the ability to take up all the space, even with the best of company.

Some days, it is a dull ache. I carry it with me, lodged between skin and bone. Other days, I feel it catch my breath during life’s inevitably banal moments. Scrubbing stains out of laundry in the sink. Weaving through a crowded sidewalk on my way to buy groceries. It can last for a few minutes. A couple of hours. A few days.

The funny thing is that in my loneliness, I know I’m not alone.

In recent years, researchers around the world have warned that we are facing a loneliness epidemic. In 2017, the American Psychological Association’s annual convention focused on data that reveals loneliness and social isolation pose an equal, if not greater, danger to public health than other, more commonly discussed risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and substance abuse—all factors that, by comparison, take up large amounts of public resources and attention.

What’s more, in a 2015 study of more than 3 million participants, researchers at Brigham Young University found that increased social connection is linked to a 50 percent reduced risk of premature death. Put another way: when it comes to a heightened risk of mortality, loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

At the same time, loneliness remains under-reported. We simply do not like to talk about it. Researchers have only begun to understand the phenomena and its role in the human experience—even as more people now are living alone and experiencing loneliness than at any other time in recorded history. Today in Canada, one-person households account for over 28 percent of all households, as reported in the 2016 Canadian census. They even surpass the numbers for couples with children, which fell to 26.5 percent in 2016 from 31.5 percent in 2001.

Living alone is also on the rise globally, according to a number of nations’ census data. In the US, as of 2012, nearly 30 percent of the population lives alone; similar numbers are reported in the UK as of 2014; and in Norway that number sat at 40 percent in 2012. While it’s true that not every person who lives alone will feel lonely, researchers have also found that, when it comes to health effects, there is little difference between isolation and the perception of loneliness.

“Not only is it not much fun to feel lonely,” says Ami Rokach, a psychologist and York University professor who has been studying loneliness for nearly 30 years. “It is also dangerous.” He agrees that loneliness is an epidemic, particularly due to the increased risks of premature mortality, but adds that the lack of popular knowledge on the subject doesn’t help either. We must be careful in how we view the actual experiences of loneliness, he adds. While it affects health, it should not be approached as an illness—it is, after all, not something that can be treated by medication—but rather as a natural, if not exactly desired, part of the human experience.

Researchers such as Rokach prefer to classify loneliness into two categories, dubbed “transitional loneliness” and “chronic loneliness.” Transitional loneliness can be experienced during a move across the country, a breakup, the passing of a loved one. It ebbs and flows. Most importantly, it passes. But chronic loneliness is different. It can last for years, and can disrupt people from living their lives. It is the type of loneliness that can lead to illness and premature death if left unaddressed. But it doesn’t necessarily call for self-help books or a marathon of Oprah reruns. It cannot be cured, says Rokach, by getting some friends or going out to a pub.

If someone, he says, is experiencing chronic loneliness—the type that may lead them to describe themselves as being lonely for their entire life—it might be time to turn to a mental health professional. “Not to fix you,” he adds. “Not to straighten your head. But to help you understand why you feel lonely.” The irony is that talking about loneliness is one of the best tools for managing it and understanding how it manifests in a person’s life, whether it’s through depression, poor eating habits, or something they cannot even name. Doing this deeper work does not mean loneliness will suddenly vanish from their life, but talking about it can keep it from killing them.

Jennifer Choy is a thirty-three-year-old Toronto-based professional working in the fashion industry. She is also one of millions of young people using friending and networking apps in the hopes of cultivating new platonic relationships. That includes joining the nearly 14,000 people using Bunz Friending Zone, a Facebook group created for people new to the city to meet and (hopefully) establish friendships. In addition to Bunz, Choy has also dipped her toe in the waters of Bumble BFF. The offshoot evolved from the self-proclaimed feminist Bumble dating app, which seeks to give women control in the world of swipe-dating. The BFF counterpart follows a similar empowerment ethos but instead strives to help connect women with potential female friends in their area. In its first week, the BFF feature saw 1 million swipes.

Choy, like many of her cohorts, attributes her loneliness in part to the fact that she finds herself in a different place than others in her friend circle, who, she says, are mostly married with children. Again, she is not alone in her loneliness. In 1981, only 26 percent of youth between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine were unmarried in Canada. By 2011, that number had jumped to 73 percent. At the same time, we make fewer friends as we get older—and often lose the ones we once had. A 2016 joint study conducted by Oxford and Aalto University in Finland suggests that friend circles significantly decline during a person’s mid-twenties and continue to fall until their mid-forties. This is largely because we identify who is most valuable in our lives during our twenties and, as we act on the urge to settle down, begin to meet fewer new people. In other words, we put ourselves into social retirement, sometimes unwittingly.

“If you met me, I don’t think you would believe that I felt lonely,” says Choy. As a young woman in the fashion industry, her active social media accounts tell a story of a trendy, social person with many friends and many places to go to with them. But social media cannot reflect her yearning for more: more close friends, more people in her life with whom she feels she stands on common ground—or, at the very least, someone to go out to the movies with. In an effort to fill her loneliness, Choy often finds herself behind her computer screen or on her phone chatting to strangers—people she knows she most likely will never meet in person. “I feel like I only talk to ‘online people’ I don’t know.”

There’s little dispute that the internet and technology in general have changed the way we interact. For better and worse, both have also changed how we spend time with ourselves and how we deal with loneliness. Beyond Bunz and Bumble BFF, there are even more audacious initiatives, like the Replika app, which uses artificial intelligence technology to allow users to have text-based conversations with their phones. The more a user chats with Replika, the more the app will share with the user. The chat is similar to an iPhone message conversation—but with AI. The more information you offer Replika, the more nuanced its answers and conversation become. In its early days, users reportedly started to fall in love with their AI. The popularity of such technology—and our willingness to be vulnerable with a robot but not each other—says a lot about our need for connection, and its simultaneous fear of admitting so out loud.

Marissa Korda launched the Loneliness Project in late 2017 to help alleviate the stigma associated with being alone. In the few short months the website has been up, the Loneliness Project founder has archived at least 900 stories of lonely people worldwide. The twenty-six-year-old Toronto graphic designer became interested in the topic of loneliness after she began to increasingly notice what she describes as a lack of empathy and kindness in the world around her. “What a better way to promote empathy and compassion than talking about an experience that universally,” she says, “we all share.”

Since its inception, the site has had more than 17,000 visitors. Korda has posted stories of loneliness from people as young as four years old to as old as eighty. However, many submissions are from people in their twenties and thirties, she says. “I think it’s surprising for people to realize that millennials struggle a lot with loneliness.” Korda attributes the exacerbation of millennial loneliness to the use of social media. “Social media can lead to a culture of comparing your life to the lives of other people. You can’t help it.”

She also notes that, while many stories are submitted anonymously, most of those that aren’t are largely sent in by people identifying as women. Rokach has found a similar gender disparity in his own research. Men, he adds, have been socialized to be strong and not admit to their loneliness. Meanwhile, women, he says, have been socialized to befriend and have a social support network. When they don’t have those things, he adds, they are, on average, more likely to admit to their loneliness and seek resolutions.

In her research for the Loneliness Project, Korda says she was most surprised, however, by how unprepared people seemed for their social retirement. Korda herself had to go on what she has called a “conscious crusade to make new friends”—and it wasn’t easy. It also doesn’t help that loneliness is often interpreted as a result of “not trying hard enough,” a dismissal that discounts how difficult and complex an experience it is. In a lot of ways, she adds, talking about things like depression is easier than talking about loneliness—even though both have stigma attached. That’s because, she says, we’ve already done the work of starting a conversation around depression and, thus, tackling the stigma. But projects like hers are a start.

Wherever I turn, I am confronted by loneliness. I see my own loneliness manifest itself in stale coffee grinds in the sink, after, once again, making too much for just one person. I hear it the raucous sounds of a party on the floor above me, echoing in the seemingly cavernous space of my apartment. I see the loneliness strangers carry with them. I hear it in their voices when they speak to me. I see it when they call out into the massive void of the internet, on apps like Bumble BFF, or when they share something pithy on Twitter. It is pervasive. It lurks in the gaps between us, in the physical world and the virtual, a natural part of life.

I want us to build a world that accepts the inevitability of loneliness and empowers those experiencing it, whether it is done through technological means or through the simple profoundness of real-world human connection. To be able to combat loneliness, though, we need to open it up and discover its hidden wisdoms, the possible insights it has into the human condition. We need to know more about loneliness. We need to want to know more about it. But first we need to feel free to admit to our loneliness.

Seeing my own loneliness typed out has left me utterly vulnerable. It has been one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. In discussing this article, I could hear the hesitance in my editor’s voice when she asked me if there were any personal anecdotes I wanted to share. Her first instinct was not to offend me. It was awkward. I said I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea. But I did feel a pang of embarrassment and a little indignation. I thought: Just because I’m writing a piece on loneliness doesn’t mean that I am lonely. But I caught myself in another lie. It was the truth. It still is the truth. And that’s okay. It means that I am only human.

Sam Juric
Sam Juric is a writer and journalist based in PEI. She has been published in This Magazine and the CBC.