In ways both large and small, American society still assumes that the default adult has a partner and that the default household contains multiple people. If you were to look under the roofs of American homes at random, it wouldn’t take long to find someone who lives alone. By the Census Bureau’s latest count, there are about 36 million solo dwellers, and together they make up 28 percent of U.S. households.
Even though this percentage has been climbing steadily for decades, these people are still living in a society that is tilted against them. In the domains of work, housing, shopping, and health care, much of American life is a little—and in some cases, a lot—easier if you have a partner or live with family members or housemates. The number of people who are inconvenienced by that fact grows every year.
Those who live alone, to be clear, are not lonely and miserable. Research indicates that, young or old, single people are more social than their partnered peers. Bella DePaulo, the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, reeled off to me some of the pleasures of having your own space: “the privacy, the freedom to arrange your life and your space just the way you want it—you get to decide when to sleep, when to get up, what you eat, when you eat, what you watch on Netflix, how you set the thermostat.”
The difficulties of living alone tend to lie more on a societal level, outside the realm of personal decision making. For one thing, having a partner makes big and small expenditures much more affordable, whether it’s a down payment on a house, rent, day care, utility bills, or other overhead costs of daily life. One recent study estimated that, for a couple, living separately is about 28 percent more expensive than living together.
These efficiencies are an inherent feature of sharing costs with other people, but the barriers to living alone, for those who want to, would be much lower if housing (and health care, and education) weren’t so expensive. Moreover, the types of housing that are most commonly available for one person typically privilege privacy over togetherness, but the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. DePaulo has studied communities where single residents have their own spaces, but also plentiful shared areas with “the possibility of running into other people.”
If you need to, say, move heavy furniture or get a ride somewhere in an emergency, your neighbors are easy to reach. More such options would make solo life easier. Many who live by themselves are effectively penalized at work too. “Lots of people I interviewed complained that their managers presumed they had extra time to stay at the office or take on extra projects because they don’t have family at home,” Eric Klinenberg, the author of the 2012 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone and a sociologist at NYU, told me.
“Some said that they were not compensated fairly either, because managers gave raises to people based on the impression that they had more expenses, for child care and so on.” And if many workers who live alone end up making less money, as consumers they face less favorable pricing options than other shoppers. Buying larger quantities of food at the grocery store is usually cheaper, but as DePaulo pointed out, people who live alone might not get through perishable items quickly enough.
(She wishes more stores would let people buy only as much of something as they please, instead of locking them into certain packaging sizes.) Even when a consumer good such as paper towels can’t spoil, people with a small home might not have the space for a stockpile. The bias against solo consumers runs deep: Recipes are rarely written for a single diner, and DePaulo said that she has heard from single people who have had trouble booking restaurant reservations for one.
Also, some aspects of travel, particularly lodging, are much more expensive, per person, for single people. These all may seem like small annoyances, but in practice they are regular reminders that American society still assumes that the default adult has a partner and that the default household contains multiple people.
More concerning, some health-care protocols are essentially built on the assumption that a patient lives with someone who can support them. Certain medical procedures require patients to be dropped off or taken home by someone who could stay with them. A friend can fill this role for people who live alone, but they may not want to make a burdensome request or share sensitive information about their health.
In the Facebook group that DePaulo created for single people, some members have reported paying a driver from a ride-hailing service extra to pose as a friend or just forgoing a procedure entirely. And people who live alone don’t always get to take full advantage of government policies. For instance, the Family and Medical Leave Act, a (fairly meager) law that protects some workers’ jobs if they take unpaid leave to look after a loved one, covers care only for spouses, children, and parents. A person who lives alone and doesn’t have a spouse might want to look after a sibling or close friend, but the law doesn’t cover that.
According to the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who aren’t married and don’t live with a romantic partner has also been growing, having jumped from 29 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 2019. Many of these people live with others, such as their parents or other relatives, and some of these disadvantages apply to this group as well, depending on whom they share a home with. They may not be able to get a ride to the doctor from a homebound older relative, or may get treated differently at work if they don’t have a child.
Some of them might want to live alone, but can’t afford to do so. And many single people, whether they live alone or with others, constantly face the stigma associated with not being partnered. “It’s oppressive, always getting pitied,” DePaulo said. “People have bought into the ideology that having someone is better—[that] the more natural, normal, superior way of being is being coupled or having a family.”
She sees this norm in the political rhetoric around virtuous, “hardworking families,” and thinks that this cultural default can to some extent be blamed for the ways in which American society has been slow to adapt to people who are single or live alone. She also attributes the slowness to “cultural lag”: In the future, lots of Americans are going to live alone—tens of millions already do—and eventually, society will, with hope, catch up.
By Joe Pinsker
Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation. Loneliness is also described as social pain – a psychological mechanism which motivates individuals to seek social connections. It is often associated with an unwanted lack of connection and intimacy. Loneliness overlaps and yet is distinct from solitude. Solitude is simply the state of being apart from others; not everyone who experiences solitude feels lonely. As a subjective emotion, loneliness can be felt even when a person is surrounded by other people.
The causes of loneliness are varied. Loneliness can be a result of genetic inheritance, cultural factors, a lack of meaningful relationships a significant loss, an excessive reliance on passive technologies (notably the Internet in the 21st century), or a self-perpetuating mindset. Research has shown that loneliness is found throughout society, including among people in marriages along with other strong relationships, and those with successful careers. Most people experience loneliness at some points in their lives, and some feel it often.
The effects of loneliness are also varied. Transient loneliness (loneliness which exists for a short period of time) is related to positive effects, including an increased focus on the strength of one’s relationships. Chronic loneliness (loneliness which exists for a significant amount of time in one’s life) is generally correlated with negative effects, including increased obesity, substance use disorder, risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, risk of high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.Chronic loneliness is also correlated with an increased risk of death and suicidal thoughts.
Medical treatments for loneliness include beginning therapy and taking antidepressants. Social treatments for loneliness generally include an increase in interaction with others, such as group activities (such as exercise or religious activities), re-engaging with old friends or colleagues, and becoming more connected with one’s community. Other social treatments for loneliness include the ownership of pets and loneliness-designed technologies, such as meetup services or social robots (although the use of some technologies in order to combat loneliness is debated).
Loneliness has long been a theme in literature, going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, academic coverage of loneliness was sparse until recent decades. In the 21st century, some academics and professionals have claimed that loneliness has become an epidemic, including Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States. However, this claim has been disputed, with critics arguing that loneliness has not increased, but rather only academic focus on the topic has.
Loneliness has long been viewed as a universal condition which, at least to a moderate extent, is felt by everyone. From this perspective, some degree of loneliness is inevitable as the limitations of human life mean it is impossible for anyone to continually satisfy their inherent need for connection. Professors including Michele A. Carter and Ben Lazare Mijuskovic have written books and essays tracking the existential perspective and the many writers who have talked about it throughout history.
Thomas Wolfe‘s 1930s essay God’s Lonely Man is frequently discussed in this regard; Wolfe makes the case that everyone imagines they are lonely in a special way unique to themselves, whereas really every single person sometimes experiences loneliness. While agreeing that loneliness alleviation can be a good thing, those who take the existential view tend to doubt such efforts can ever be fully successful, seeing some level of loneliness as both unavoidable and even beneficial, as it can help people appreciate the joy of living.
For many people the family of origin did not offer the trust building relationships needed to build a reference that lasts a lifetime and even in memory after the passing of a loved one. This can be due to parenting style, traditions, mental health issues including personality disorders and abusive family environments. Sometimes religious shunning is also present.
This impacts the ability of individuals to know themselves, to value themselves and to relate to others or to do so with great difficulty. All these factors and many others are overlooked by the standard medical or psychological advice that recommends to go meet friends, family and to socialise. This isn’t always possible when there is no one available to relate to and an inability to connect without the skills and knowledge on how to proceed. With time a person might become discouraged or develop apathy from numerous trials, failures or rejections brought on by the lack of interpersonal skills.
As the rate of loneliness increases yearly among people of every age group and more so in the elderly, with known detrimental physical and psychological effects, there is a need to find new ways to connect people with each other and especially so at a time when a whole lot of the human attention is focused on electronic devices, it is a challenge.
- Jianjun Gao, Lea K Davis, Amy B Hart, Sandra Sanchez-Roige, Lide Han, John T Cacioppo, Abraham A Palmer (2016). “Genome-Wide Association Study of Loneliness Demonstrates a Role for Common Variation”. Neuropsychopharmacology. 42 (4): 811–821. doi:10.1038/npp.2016.197. PMC 5312064. PMID 27629369.
- Vivek Murthy (2020). Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Harper Wave. pp. 103–113, 255–262, 185–281, passim. ISBN 978-0062913296.
- Hughes, Carole (1999). The relationship of use of the Internet and loneliness among college students (PhD Thesis). Boston College. OCLC 313894784.[page needed]
- Tim Adams (28 February 2016). “John Cacioppo: ‘Loneliness is like an iceberg – it goes deeper than we can see'”. The Guardian. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
- Sometimes called the “reaffiliation motive”, e.g. see Loneliness across the life span
- Fay Bound Alberti (2019). A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion. Oxford University Press. pp. 1–40, 61–83. ISBN 978-0198811343.
- N. Leigh-Hunta; D. Bagguleyb; K. Bashb; V. Turnerb; S. Turnbullb; N. Valtortac; W. Caan (2017). “An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness”. PLOS ONE.
- Cacioppo, J.; Hawkley, L. (2010). “Loneliness Matters: A Theorectical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms”. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 40 (2): 218–227. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8. PMC 3874845. PMID 20652462.
- “Loneliness is strongly linked to depression in older adults in a large, long-term study”. NIHR Evidence (Plain English summary). 29 June 2021. doi:10.3310/alert_46882. S2CID 242980660.
- Lee, Siu Long; Pearce, Eiluned; Ajnakina, Olesya; Johnson, Sonia; Lewis, Glyn; Mann, Farhana; Pitman, Alexandra; Solmi, Francesca; Sommerlad, Andrew; Steptoe, Andrew; Tymoszuk, Urszula (9 November 2020). “The association between loneliness and depressive symptoms among adults aged 50 years and older: a 12-year population-based cohort study”. The Lancet Psychiatry. 8 (1): 48–57. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30383-7. PMC 8009277. PMID 33181096.
- Health Benefits of Pets Archived 15 March 2017 at the Wayback Machine (from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Retrieved 14 November 2007.
- Ann Robinson (17 May 2020). “‘Dogs have a magic effect’: how pets can improve our mental health”. The Guardian. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
- “Teens around the world are lonelier than a decade ago. The reason may be smartphones”. Washington Post. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
- Julianne Holt-Lunstad; Timothy B. Smith; J. Bradley Layton (2010). “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review”. PLOS Medicine. 7 (7): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316. PMC 2910600. PMID 20668659.
- Ben Lazare Mijuskovic (2012). Loneliness in Philosophy, Psychology, and Literature. iUniverse. pp. 60–69. ISBN 978-1-4697-8934-7.
- Michele A. Carter (2003). “Abiding Loneliness: An Existential Perspective on Loneliness”. Park Ridge Center for Health, Faith, and Ethics. Philosophical Society.com. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
- John G. McGraw (2010). Intimacy and Isolation. Rodopi. pp. 107–149, 417–420. ISBN 978-9042031395.
- Ami Sha’ked; Ami Rokach, eds. (2015). “3,4, 9,12, 16”. Addressing Loneliness: Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1138026216.
- Masi, C. M.; Chen, H.-Y.; Hawkley, L. C.; Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). “A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness”. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 15 (3): 219–266. doi:10.1177/1088868310377394. PMC 3865701. PMID 20716644.
- Mary-AnnJarvisa; Anita Padmanabhanunnib; Yusentha Balakrishnac; Jennifer Chippsd (2020). “The effectiveness of interventions addressing loneliness in older persons: An umbrella review”. International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences. 12: 100177. doi:10.1016/j.ijans.2019.100177.
- Robin Dunbar; Danilo Bzdok (2020). “The Neurobiology of Social Distance”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 24 (9): 717–733. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2020.05.016. PMC 7266757. PMID 32561254.
- Parker, Pope (1 December 2009). “Why loneliness can be contagious”. The New York Times. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
- Christakis, N.A.; Fowler, J.H. (2013). “Social contagion theory: examining dynamic social networks and human behavior”. Statistics in Medicine. 32 (4): 556–577. doi:10.1002/sim.5408. PMC 3830455. PMID 22711416.
- Cacioppo JT, Fowler JH, Christakis NA (2009). “Alone in the crowd: the structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97 (6): 977–991. doi:10.1037/a0016076. PMC 2792572. PMID 19968414.
- Sum, Shima; Mathews, R. Mark; Hughes, Ian; Campbell, Andrew (2008). “Internet Use and Loneliness in Older Adults”. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 11 (2): 208–211. doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.0010. PMID 18422415. S2CID 206156298.
- Shaw, Lindsay H.; Gant, Larry M. (2002). “In Defense of the Internet: The Relationship between Internet Communication and Depression, Loneliness, Self-Esteem, and Perceived Social Support”. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 5 (2): 157–171. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.563.2946. doi:10.1089/109493102753770552. PMID 12025883.
- “Is the Internet the Secret to Happiness?”. Time. 14 May 2010. Archived from the original on 25 April 2012. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
- Moretta, T.; Buodo, G. (2020). “Problematic Internet Use and Loneliness: How Complex Is the Relationship? A Short Literature Review”. Current Addiction Reports. 7 (2): 125–136. doi:10.1007/s40429-020-00305-z. S2CID 212620349.
- Christina Victor; Louise Mansfield; Tess Kay; Norma Daykin; Jack Lane; Lily Grigsby Duffy; Alan Tomlinson; Catherine Meads (October 2018). “An overview of reviews: the effectiveness of interventions to address loneliness at all stages of the life-course” (PDF). whatworkswellbeing.org. Retrieved 1 March 2020.
- Nowland, R.; Necka, E. A.; Cacioppo, J. T. (2018). “Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World?”. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 13 (1): 70–87. doi:10.1177/1745691617713052. PMID 28937910.
- Boomsma, Dorret I.; Willemsen, Gonneke; Dolan, Conor V.; Hawkley, Louise C.; Cacioppo, John T. (2005). “Genetic and Environmental Contributions to Loneliness in Adults: The Netherlands Twin Register Study”. Behavior Genetics. 35 (6): 745–752. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.453.498. doi:10.1007/s10519-005-6040-8. PMID 16273322. S2CID 674438.
- Lowrey, Annie (26 May 2011). “Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia”. Slate. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
- Paumgarten, Nick (9 April 2007). “There and Back Again”. The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
- Weiss, R.S. Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation; The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1973.[ISBN missing][page needed]
- Loneliness at Universities: Determinants of Emotional and Social Loneliness among Students, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2018, 15(9), 1865; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15091865 , by Katharina Diehl, Charlotte Jansen, Kamila Ishchanova and Jennifer Hilger-Kolb
- O’Súilleabháin, Páraic S.; Gallagher, Stephen; Steptoe, Andrew (2019). “Loneliness, Living Alone, and All-Cause Mortality: The Role of Emotional and Social Loneliness in the Elderly During 19 Years of Follow-Up”. Psychosomatic Medicine. 81 (6): 521–526. doi:10.1097/PSY.0000000000000710. hdl:10344/8038. ISSN 0033-3174. PMC 6615929. PMID 31094903.
- Different sources of loneliness are associated with different forms of psychopathology in adolescence, Journal of Research in Personality Volume 45, Issue 2, April 2011, pp. 233–237, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2010.12.005 ; by Mathias Lasgaard, Luc Goossens, Rikke HolmBramsen, Tea Trillingsgaard and Ask Elklita
- Lesch, Elmien; Casper, Rozanne; van der Watt, Alberta S. J. (2016). “Romantic relationships and loneliness in a group of South African postgraduate students”. South African Review of Sociology. 47 (4): 22–39. doi:10.1080/21528586.2016.1182442. ISSN 2152-8586. S2CID 152149835.
- Shah, Syed Ghulam Sarwar; Nogueras, David; van Woerden, Hugo Cornelis; Kiparoglou, Vasiliki (5 November 2020). “The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pandemic of Lockdown Loneliness and the Role of Digital Technology”. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 22 (11): e22287. doi:10.2196/22287. ISSN 1438-8871. PMC 7647474. PMID 33108313.
- “How can we reduce the toll of loneliness in older adults?”. NIHR Evidence (Plain English summary). 30 September 2021. doi:10.3310/collection_47889.
- Peplau, L.A.; Perlman, D. (1982). “Perspectives on loneliness”. In Peplau, Letitia Anne; Perlman, Daniel (eds.). Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy. New York: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 1–18. ISBN 978-0-471-08028-2.
- Suedfeld, P. (1989). “Past the reflection and through the looking-glass: Extending loneliness research”. In Hojat, M.; Crandall, R. (eds.). Loneliness: Theory, research and applications. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications. pp. 51–56.
- Bicudo de Castro, Vicente; Muskat, Matthias (4 April 2020). “Inverted Crusoeism: Deliberately marooning yourself on an island” (PDF). Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures. 14 (1). doi:10.21463/shima.14.1.16.
- Larson, R.; Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Graef, R. (1982). “Time alone in daily experience: Loneliness or renewal?”. In Peplau, Letitia Anne; Perlman, Daniel (eds.). Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy. New York: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 41–53. ISBN 978-0-471-08028-2.
- Suedfeld, P. (1982). “Aloneness as a healing experience”. In Peplau, Letitia Anne; Perlman, Daniel (eds.). Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy. New York: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 54–67. ISBN 978-0-471-08028-2.
- de Jong-Gierveld, J.; Raadschelders, J. (1982). “Types of loneliness”. In Peplau, Letitia Anne; Perlman, Daniel (eds.). Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy. New York: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 105–119. ISBN 978-0-471-08028-2.
- Duck, S. (1992). Human relations (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.[ISBN missing][page needed]
- An Existential View of Loneliness Archived 27 September 2010 at the Wayback Machine – Carter, Michele; excerpt from Abiding Loneliness: An Existential Perspective, Park Ridge Center, September 2000
- Tomšik, Robert (2015). Relationship of loneliness and meaning of life among adolescents. In Current Trends in Educational Science and Practice VIII : International Proceedings of Scientific Studies. Nitra: UKF. pp. 66–67. ISBN 978-80-558-0813-0.
- Love, H. K. (1 January 2001). “Spoiled Identity: Stephen Gordon’s Loneliness and the Difficulties of Queer History”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 7 (4): 487–519. doi:10.1215/10642684-7-4-487. ISSN 1064-2684. S2CID 145677903.
- Bost, Darius (2019). Evidence of Being. University of Chicago Press. doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226589961.001.0001. ISBN 978-0226589824. S2CID 158970684.
- Andrew Stickley; Ai Koyanagi; Bayard Roberts; Erica Richardson; Pamela Abbott; Sergei Tumanov; Martin McKee (2013). “Loneliness: Its Correlates and Association with Health Behaviours and Outcomes in Nine Countries of the Former Soviet Union”. PLOS ONE. 8 (7): e67978. Bibcode:2013PLoSO…867978S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067978. PMC 3701665. PMID 23861843.
- Comber, Cathy. “Ms”. loneliness.org.nz. Archived from the original on 8 October 2018. Retrieved 8 October 2018.
- Manuela Barretoa, Christina Victor, Claudia Hammond, Alice Ecclesd, Matt T.Richins, Pamela Qualter (2020). “Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness”. Personality and Individual Differences. 169: 110066. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066. ISSN 0191-8869. PMC 7768187. PMID 33536694.
- Chawla, Kavita; Kunonga, Tafadzwa Patience; Stow, Daniel; Barker, Robert; Craig, Dawn; Hanratty, Barbara (26 July 2021). Aslam, Muhammad Shahzad (ed.). “Prevalence of loneliness amongst older people in high-income countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis”. PLOS ONE. 16 (7): e0255088. Bibcode:2021PLoSO..1655088C. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0255088. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 8312979. PMID 34310643.
- Loneliness – What characteristics and circumstances are associated with feeling lonely? Archived 25 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine Analysis of characteristics and circumstances associated with loneliness in England using the Community Life Survey, 2016 to 2017. Published by the Office for National Statistics. Published 10 April 2018. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
- Diehl K, Jansen C, Ishchanova K, Hilger-Kolb J. “Loneliness at Universities: Determinants of Emotional and Social Loneliness among Students”. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Aug 29;15(9):1865. doi:10.3390/ijerph15091865. PMID 30158447; PMC 6163695.
Program Apps To Buy: