On May 11, the CDC terminated its emergency declaration for COVID-19, marking an official end to the pandemic in America. After more than three years of lockdowns, masking, social distancing, sickness and mass death — with more than a million people perishing in the U.S. alone — the outbreak that brought American society to a screeching halt is finally “over.”
Yet another pandemic rages on, one that consumed many Western countries, including the U.S., long before the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in late 2019. I’m referring to the “pandemic” of loneliness, that anguished feeling of being alone, isolated and forgotten in the world. As the psychologist Benedict McWhirter defines it, loneliness is “an enduring condition of emotional distress that arises when a person feels estranged from, misunderstood, or rejected by others and/or lacks appropriate social partners for desired activities, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy.”
The sad truth is that an unprecedented number of people today are lonely, and studies show that the percentage of folks who feel alone, have no one to talk to and lack any close friends has skyrocketed in recent decades. According to a 2018 survey, more than half of respondents in the U.S., or 54%, said they always or sometimes “feel as though no one knows them well.” Another 47% reported feeling “left out,” 46% are “sometimes or always feeling alone,” 43% “say they lack companionship” and “are isolated from others” and 39% are “no longer close to anyone” at all. In Australia, a 2016 study found that a staggering 60% of people “often feel lonely,” while in the U.K., loneliness has become so widespread that former Prime Minister Theresa May established a “minister of loneliness” in 2018. Consequently, some commentators have noted that we may well live in the loneliest societies in all of human history.
Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic made this situation much worse. For example, one study found a seven-point jump in the prevalence of loneliness between 2018 and 2019, from 54% to 61% of Americans who said they feel alone in the world. The data, however, reveals that loneliness has been steadily rising in some Western countries at least since the 1990s. According to one survey, only 3% of Americans had no close friends in 1990, while 33% said they had 10 or more. Compare this to 2021, when a shocking 12% reported having no close friends at all, with just 13% saying they have 10 or more. As the American Survey Center writes, “many Americans [now] do not have a large number of close friends,” adding that “the number of close friendships Americans have appears to have declined considerably over the past several decades” (italics mine).
A broader historical perspective suggests that the loneliness trend started long before this, going back to the 19th century. Why this period? There are several reasons, the most obvious being secularization: That was when Christianity began to decline in the Western world, due in part to scientific breakthroughs like Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which offered a radical new perspective on our origins and place within the universe. That dealt a major blow to traditional religion, and by the end of the 19th century many intellectuals no longer saw Christianity, at least in its conventional forms, as a tenable belief system. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared in 1882, “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” (Nietzsche was a passionate atheist, but his point was less about whether God existed than about the fact that our confidence in his existence could no longer be justified.)
The connection between loneliness and secularization is that if one believes that God is omnipresent, always there watching over us, in a personal capacity as our lord and savior, how could one possibly feel lonely? If we take this worldview seriously, we are forever in the presence of God, and hence no one is ever alone. Secularization undermined this eternal source of comfort, which enabled the new “emotion” of loneliness to arise.
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Another contributing factor was capitalism and its associated ethos of individualism, which facilitated a reconceptualization of ourselves as independent, isolated agents in perpetual competition with others. Capitalism, in effect, tore apart the family: Adult children moved away from their parents, and spouses spent a growing portion of their waking lives separated from their significant others and children, occupied by the endless grind of work in the factory or cubicle. Society became atomized and alienated, as illustrated by the rise of the modern suburban neighborhood: Whereas in the past, towns and villages tended to be organized around a common space such as a town square, the suburb replaced these concentric designs with more linear arrangements or amorphous sprawl, which is far less conducive to a shared sense of community. The resulting isolation created a novel situation: It now required more effort to connect with others than to be alone, whereas in the past the opposite was true, and it took more effort to be alone than connected.
Loneliness is a uniquely modern phenomenon, and in some sense did not exist before the 19th century. The word rarely appears in English earlier than that, and its modern meaning as a feeling of dejection only dates to 1814.
Hence, as many historians have argued, loneliness is a uniquely modern phenomenon. The experience of that “enduring condition of emotional distress,” in McWhirter’s phrase, is not something that most people would have experienced before the 19th century, and in some sense did not exist. Linguistic analyses support this contention. For example, although the word “lonely” was certainly used in English prior to the 19th century, it meant something like “being physically away from others.” It didn’t necessarily connote or imply a state of psychological unease. To be lonely was to be only by oneself.
Or consider that the noun “loneliness” rarely appears in English prose before 1800. As the Google Ngram Viewer results below indicate (tracking the frequency of words across time), however, it became far more common throughout the 19th century. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, our current sense of “loneliness” as the “feeling of being dejected from want of companionship or sympathy” dates back to 1814 — it’s just over two centuries old.
This brings us back to the 20th century, when loneliness became a widespread social and cultural phenomenon, especially after the Second World War. In their 1966 song “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles captured the resulting sense of unease when Paul McCartney sang: “All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?” followed a line later with “Where do they all belong?” In the previous decade, one of the most influential philosophers of the century, Hannah Arendt, broached the topic in her famous book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” arguing that “what prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”
Yet the full-blown pandemic of loneliness that has emerged since the 1990s hasn’t affected every demographic in the same way. It’s not a “borderline experience” largely confined to the elderly, but an ailment that has hit Generation Z and marginalized groups especially hard. One recent study, for example, found that Gen Z individuals are “significantly more likely than any other generation to say they experience” feeling “alone, isolated, left out, that there is no one they can talk to” and so on. Another survey from 2022 reports that an incredible 75% of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black adults in the U.S. suffer from loneliness, compared to the total average of 58%.
This is alarming not just because the experience of being lonely causes psychological anguish, but because social isolation is “associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia,” a “29% increased risk of heart disease, and a 32% increased risk of stroke.” Anxiety, depression and suicide are also linked to loneliness, and while suicide rates actually dropped during the pandemic, alcohol and drug-related deaths in the U.S. increased by 20% in just the first year, resulting in “the highest number of substance misuse deaths ever recorded for a single year.”
In fact, the situation is even worse than those statistics suggest. Many of the people we count within our circle of “friends” are not especially dependable in times of need or personal crisis. They are not what most of us would call “true” friends, but are instead more like fair-weather companions who take what they can and leave when it suits them. Perhaps capitalism is partly to blame, since it promotes a transactional model of interpersonal relations, whereby friendship becomes, essentially, a business venture and cost-benefit analyses determine the extent of one’s engagement with others. As Marx and Engels write in “The Communist Manifesto,” referring specifically to families and finances, “the bourgeoisie [capitalist class] has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”
Capitalism may be partly to blame for the decay of friendship: It promotes a transactional model of interpersonal relations, whereby friendship becomes a business venture and cost-benefit analyses drive our engagement with others
I think there’s something to this, and indeed I personally discovered the limits of friendship after becoming seriously ill some time ago: Although many friends rushed to my aid, some of the people I loved and cared about the most in the world simply vanished — yet another modern phenomenon called “ghosting.” When I mentioned this heartbreaking experience on social media, I was surprised by the number of people who reported similar experiences. One person wrote: “I got diagnosed with cancer a while back and entering that world made me see just how many people get abandoned during medical crises. … My spouse was dependable, but I lost several lifelong friendships because of it.” Another noted that their long-term partner left after they developed bipolar disorder, adding that “I don’t think people understand how extreme the multiplicative effects of (having serious illness) x (losing a main support system) can be.” Others spoke of friends and even family deserting them as they struggled with mental health, medical and substance abuse issues — precisely those moments in life when a robust social infrastructure is most desperately needed.
My own line of work — I have the cheerful job of studying global catastrophe scenarios, including human extinction — only underlines how disastrous the loneliness pandemic can be. Consider the fact that climate change will devastate the world. More than one billion people will be displaced, resulting in huge migrations of desperate climate refugees. Ecosystems will collapse. Food insecurity will rise. Large swaths of the U.S. will become arid land. Our economic and political systems will be thrown into unprecedented turmoil. Only last week came the announcement that there’s a greater than even chance that global surface temperatures on Earth will exceed the 1.5℃ threshold within the next five years. According to the 2015 Paris climate accords, keeping global temperatures below this threshold is crucial to “avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” Yet humanity — thanks specifically to nations like ours in the Global North — is well on its way to crossing that dire threshold before this decade is over.
As the world undergoes radical transformations unlike anything our species has encountered over the past 12,000 years, we will need each other more than ever before. The climate crisis and the loneliness pandemic are a perfect storm, with profound implications for our mental and physical health. I do not know how to fix this deplorable predicament — perhaps other countries, in addition to the U.K., need a “Minister of Loneliness.” In the meantime, expressions of care, compassion and kindness can go a long way. I’ve made it a habit over the years to send friends random messages simply asking how they’re doing, and to foster relationships where people I care about know that, no matter what personal crises might arise for them, I will be a dependable friend — offering them a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold, no matter what. Much more of that, I believe, will be necessary not just to survive our secular, capitalist era, but to navigate the catastrophes that inevitably lie ahead.
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