Americans Are Lonely, Lonelier Than Ever: Why?

This is a free excerpt from one of Shortform’s Articles. We give you all the important information you need to know about current events and more.

Don't miss out on the whole story. Sign up for a free trial here .

Why are Americans lonelier now more than ever before? What factors contribute to loneliness? How can you combat loneliness or find positives in solitude?

Americans are spending less time with friends, and they report being lonelier than ever—these feelings of loneliness can be particularly acute during the holidays. However, simply going out more may not be the answer.

Read on to learn more about why Americans are so lonely and tips for coping with loneliness.

American Loneliness—An Epidemic?

In 1966 the Beatles sang “ah, look at all the lonely people.” But this lyric is even more poignant today. This holiday season, more Americans will be spending time alone than ever before. This is because there’s an ongoing trend in America toward spending leisure time alone instead of with friends and family. Many people really started to feel the effects of increased loneliness during the Covid pandemic, but the trend started before that. So, why are Americans lonely now more than ever before?

Recent studies show that just a decade ago, Americans weren’t so lonely, spending about the same amount of time with friends as they were in the 1960s and ’70s. But then that began to decline and has continued to do so. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American spent about six and a half hours per week with friends between 2010 and 2013. By 2019, that number was down to four hours per week. Social distancing during the pandemic then exacerbated this trend, and time with friends fell to only two hours and 45 minutes per week.

Some experts are raising alarm bells and calling attention to the detrimental effects of loneliness, which may be felt more acutely during the holiday season. But others point out that alone time doesn’t have to be a bad thing—it might depend on how we spend that time. 

In this article, we’ll look at which Americans are most likely to be lonely, why this is happening, and what people are doing with their alone time. We’ll then give some advice for combating loneliness, including the benefits of solitude when alone time is spent in a healthy way.

Who Is Spending More Time Alone? 

According to the American Time Use Survey, all demographics in the U.S. are spending more time alone in recent years. Adults over age 60 spend the most time alone, but this demographic has always had more alone time than others and also reports the highest level of comfort with being alone. More startling is the rise in alone time spent by teenagers, considering how sociable this age group traditionally is. In 2021, Americans aged 15-19 spent 11 fewer hours per week with friends compared to 2010-2013. 

Statistics also show that demographics who tend to suffer more from loneliness include people of color, immigrants, those in lower income brackets, and those in the LGBTQ+ community. So there are social and economic disparities in levels of loneliness.

Why Is This Happening?

Researchers have attributed the rise of alone time to factors such as social media use, increasing political polarization, and new technologies. Online communication is gradually replacing in-person socializing. However, the data shows that people spend the majority of their increasing alone time watching television

A contributing factor may be that as the cost of living rises, Americans are spending longer hours working. This means people, particularly those in the younger and lower-earning generations, are exhausted and don’t have as much time or energy for socializing. This demographic is also more likely to view online communication as an acceptable substitute for in-person friendships. But is it? Research suggests maybe not. A 2020 survey found that one in five American millennials report having no friends at all, and 71% report feeling lonely. Worse yet, almost 79% of Gen Z respondents reported loneliness, making them the loneliest generation. The same study found that the heaviest social media users were the most likely to report feeling lonely and isolated.

Is Alone Time Being Spent Incorrectly? 

Humans have been called the “ultra-social animal” because we’re evolutionarily built for cooperation and socialization. It’s clear that an unhealthy amount of solitude can lead to loneliness, which in turn leads to a variety of physical and mental health problems. Social isolation and loneliness have been correlated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, and suicide

However, research has also shown that the opposite can be a problem as well. People who don’t feel they get enough alone time also report lower levels of well-being. So the problem may be one of finding the right balance, as well as spending our alone time more wisely.

How to Combat Loneliness

If you’re suffering from loneliness or social isolation, there are some things you can do to alleviate this. Some suggestions for incorporating more social interaction in your life include:

  • Join groups based around shared interests. Ideally, these would be in your community (try to find local groups), but if that’s not possible, you could also join online groups. These can be a decent substitute if you have meaningful interactions, rather than passively scrolling or getting caught up in online arguments. 
  • Volunteer in your community. Check out for opportunities to get involved. Research shows helping others makes us feel a sense of purpose in life.
  • Initiate get-togethers with friends or co-workers. Consider having friends over for dinner or brunch, or organizing an after-work meetup for drinks. 
  • Sign up for a class. Check your local community center or community college schedules. Even remote classes could give you a healthier activity to engage in, in your alone time. 

Online Connections Are Not Enough

In Lost Connections, Johann Hari investigates the psychological and social factors that contribute to depression (which he calls “disconnections”), as well as innovative social and environmental treatments for depression (or “reconnections”). According to him, it may seem ironic that Americans feel so lonely and that an explosion of chronic loneliness across the world coincided with the birth of easily-accessible social media—now that we have constant access to everyone we know, shouldn’t we feel more connected, not less? Psychologists who specialize in internet addiction disagree because social media facilitates communication, not real connection.

Online communication scratches the connection itch temporarily, and can be a valuable tool, but it doesn’t provide the long-term sense of well-being that comes from connecting with someone in the same physical space as you. When you connect with someone face-to-face, all of your senses are engaged, satisfying your brain’s primal urge to connect. But when the interaction is mediated through a screen, that multisensory experience shrivels down to a series of pixels—a very new form of communication that your brain’s very old evolutionary patterns can’t quite process.

TITLE: Lost Connections
AUTHOR: Johann Hari
TIME: 45
READS: 66.4
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: lost-connections-summary-johann-hari

Strategies for Reclaiming Solitude

Cal Newport explains in Digital Minimalism how it’s difficult to disconnect in a hyper-connected world, but there are some simple strategies you can use to enjoy solitude in a healthy way.

1) Get away from your phone for a while. If you go out to a movie or meet a friend for dinner, leave your phone at home or in the car. If that feels too extreme, ask your friend to put your phone in her pocket or purse—whatever you can do to make the phone less accessible to you. Try to regularly get some time away from your phone.

Many people are reluctant to stray too far from their devices because they fear that something terrible will happen while they’re temporarily unreachable, but these concerns are generally overblown. To keep things in perspective, remember that just a couple of decades ago, people didn’t have portable communication (besides payphones)—and, although it might have been a little more inconvenient, they got along just fine.

2) Take long, quiet walks. Try to make time for leisurely walks that give you the opportunity for quiet reflection. Resist the urge to talk on the phone or listen to a podcast—just be with your thoughts. Of course, you can have solitude anywhere, but the unique mental and emotional benefits of walking have been well-documented: For about a decade, Nietzsche walked up to eight hours a day, and it helped him produce several influential books.

3) Write down your thoughts. Writing is a form of productive solitude, and writing a journal entry or a letter to yourself is a valuable way to process your thoughts. You don’t necessarily need to write daily—simply use writing as an outlet to work through difficult problems and big emotions.

Solitude Has Its Benefits

On a positive note, remember that according to Cal Newport, it’s easy to overlook the value of solitude, because our culture places a high value on connectivity. That emphasis on constant connection can also obscure technology’s harmful effects: Facebook’s mission statement is to help people build community and make people all over the world more closely connected—it’s hard to find fault with that.

While close personal relationships are a critical source of happiness, time with close friends and family must still be balanced with time spent alone with your thoughts. Solitude is essential in order to:

  • Come up with new ideas. When you have the space to think without any external input, you’ll be better able to work through difficult problems and come up with more creative ideas. This may also be why many writers and other famous figures have been prolific during periods of solitude.
  • Develop a better understanding of yourself. Spending time alone with your thoughts gives you the opportunity for valuable self-reflection. As you get to know yourself better, you’ll become better at regulating your emotions.
  • Support strong intimate relationships with others. Although this seems paradoxical, having time alone makes you more appreciative of the time you spend with others.

Great thinkers throughout history have recognized the value of solitude. For example, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his presidency commuting from the White House to a quiet cottage on the edge of the woods so that he could have the solitude he needed to work through challenges. Lincoln used his commute time as well as the quiet space the cottage provided to sit in thought and walk the grounds as he contemplated how to lead the country through the Civil War. Lincoln even wrote the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage. René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche were among others who had no families and few friends, but used solitude to lead productive, notable lives.

TITLE: Digital Minimalism
AUTHOR: Cal Newport
TIME: 30
READS: 155.7
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: digital-minimalism-summary-cal-newport

Americans Are Lonely, Lonelier Than Ever: Why?

Want to fast-track your learning? With Shortform, you’ll gain insights you won't find anywhere else .

Here's what you’ll get when you sign up for Shortform :

  • Complicated ideas explained in simple and concise ways
  • Smart analysis that connects what you’re reading to other key concepts
  • Writing with zero fluff because we know how important your time is

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.