We’re in the Middle of a Loneliness Epidemic—Here’s How to Combat It

written by EMMA GINSBERG
loneliness epidemic"
loneliness epidemic
Source: Tiana | Pexels
Source: Tiana | Pexels

As an introvert, there were a couple of years there when I thought the loneliness epidemic was a total myth. I don’t know about you, but I cherish my alone time like pretty much nothing else in my life. For several years of my young adult life, there was no better feeling than leaving the party early and cocooning in my bed with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate. What more could a girl possibly want than an everything shower and a romanticized night in?

As it turns out, a lot. When I started living alone, everything shifted. Suddenly, every night was “me time,” and it felt like I had closer relationships with the hosts of the podcasts I constantly listened to than my actual friends. I was experiencing the all-too-real effects of the loneliness epidemic firsthand. I struggled to fall asleep at night, found myself unmotivated to care for my physical health, and was plagued by endless fantasies about adopting a pet.

As much as the phrase “loneliness epidemic” is thrown around these days, few of us actually know what it means. What does the loneliness epidemic look like in our real lives? Why is it an “epidemic?” And, perhaps most importantly, can we do anything about it? To answer these questions and more, I turned to two experts, who helped me understand why sometimes having “me time” just isn’t enough.

Meet The Expert

Laura Walton

Laura Walton is is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and the founder of lovelew, an online grief coaching program. She is an after-loss professional and end-of-life coach, and personal and professional grief expert.

Meet The Expert

Moe Ari Brown

Moe Ari Brown is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Hinge’s Love and Connection Expert. As a leading mental health expert in the realm of Transgender Identity, they provide their expertise to help LGBTQIA+ individuals, couples, and families on their journey of self-love and connection.

What is the loneliness epidemic?

If you’ve spent any time reading up on the current state of social isolation in America, you’re probably aware that the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness an epidemic in 2023. What you might not know, though, is exactly what this means. According to Laura Walton, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and founder of lovelew, the loneliness epidemic is a generation-defining issue. “The loneliness epidemic refers to the widespread and increasing sense of social isolation and disconnection that many people are experiencing right now,” Walton says. “This phenomenon is recognized as one of the most significant public health concerns of our time and has serious implications for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.”

In day-to-day life, the loneliness epidemic can manifest in a number of ways. If you live alone and work from home, you might find yourself yearning for human interaction, but being lonely doesn’t always mean being constantly alone. The feeling of loneliness can manifest when you aren’t receiving adequate social support from your friends, family, and network; it can exist when you are out of touch with your real-life community or neighborhood; it can even come up when you’re out of touch with your own personal interests and hobbies. If you’ve ever felt lonely for an extended period of time, you know how icky it can feel to be socially isolated. That feeling isn’t to be ignored—as these experts highlight, it can have a real impact on your physical health.

Who is the loneliness epidemic affecting?

If you, like me, have pretended like the loneliness epidemic isn’t really happening while sitting solo on your couch binging Bridgerton, you might wonder who this is impacting. Though the short answer is “everyone,” there are some surprising statistics on who is simply socially isolated as opposed to who is systematically lonely. According to the Surgeon General, while adults over the age of 65 have the highest rates of social isolation, young adults are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely than this demographic. The loneliness epidemic is particularly intense among younger generations. According to Moe Ari Brown, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Connection Expert at Hinge, young adults experience 1,000 fewer hours of in-person connection time each year compared to two decades ago.

Importantly, loneliness, like any epidemic, isn’t the fault of the individual who feels lonely. There are structural reasons why loneliness has become such a problem. This means that more marginalized individuals are more likely to feel lonely. According to the Surgeon General’s original report, 63 percent of adults who earn less than $50,000 per year are considered lonely, which is 10 percentage points higher than those who earn more than $50,000 per year. The Surgeon General also defined ethnic and racial minority groups, LGBTQ+ individuals, rural residents, and victims of domestic violence as at-risk for loneliness.

According to Laura Walton, the main factor at play here is a lack of emphasis on human-to-human connection in our daily lives. “The pace of modern life can also leave us with little time for deep, personal connections. In a society that values individualism and success, daily activities like work, commuting, and other commitments often take precedence over nurturing our relationships, which are vital to our well-being,” she says.

Why is the loneliness epidemic dangerous?

Loneliness and social isolation, like any ailment that cannot be seen, are harder to recognize as dangerous to our overall well-being. After all, if we’re not all walking down the street with tears streaming down our cheeks, how are we to possibly know that loneliness is a real problem? However, loneliness is highly detrimental to our health, and not just our mental health. Being consistently lonely can cause major physical health problems, too.

“Loneliness is not merely a subjective experience; it carries significant health risks, including increased susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and even premature death,” says Moe Ari Brown. If that’s not enough to convince you to call up your friends for a hangout, I’m not sure what is. On the flip side, spending time with people and in a community is proven to be beneficial for our health. “Research shows that you feel happier and more fulfilled by spending time face-to-face with someone else,” Brown adds.

Loneliness and social isolation, like any ailment that cannot be seen, are harder to recognize as dangerous to our overall well-being. After all, if we’re not all walking down the street with tears streaming down our cheeks, how are we to possibly know that loneliness is a real problem?

In a world where mental health is already stigmatized, technology is pervasive, political divisions are deeper than ever, and individualism is seen as the ultimate strength, it’s challenging to imagine the loneliness epidemic getting the traction it deserves. However, social connection is a key element of our own individual wellness. It’s not about helping people feel less sad when they’re alone or building up people’s capacity to understand themselves and enjoy their own company—it’s about actively choosing togetherness. Being able to overcome division and isolation in favor of human connection and understanding will quite literally help us live longer.

How can you combat loneliness?

At the risk of stating the obvious, tackling the loneliness epidemic isn’t a one-person job. This isn’t a public health challenge that we can strong-arm our way through on our own. There is no pill, supplement, or robot (I do not want an AI bestie, stop asking!!!) that can fix this issue. Combating loneliness requires other people. If you’re looking for ways to be more socially connected on your own, though, here are a few expert-backed starting points.

Be open and vulnerable

Sometimes, the first step to being less lonely is admitting that you are lonely in the first place. I personally was in deep denial about my own loneliness when I first started living alone until I had a total breakdown on the phone with a long-distance friend. If you want to tackle loneliness in your own life, confiding in another person about that loneliness is a great way to feel less isolated.

With that said, being open and vulnerable in order to foster social connection doesn’t have to mean pouring your heart out. It can also mean being open to mundane connections and small conversations that make all the difference in our social connectedness. “Start by reaching out regularly to friends, family, and neighbors. Just checking in and having genuine conversations can strengthen our bonds and remind us that we’re not alone,” says Walton.

Being able to overcome division and isolation in favor of human connection and understanding will quite literally help us live longer.

Set goals for connection

According to Brown, setting tangible goals for human connection in your life will have a ripple effect on your level of social connectedness. “Adding just one more hour of in-person connection each week will help to build your social courage and allow you to take note of the small moments that aid your sense of community,” he says. If you’re feeling lonely, try to add at least one hour of dedicated social time to your calendar this week. During that hour, make a point of putting your phone away and being really present. You can start with baby steps—but chances are, the more intentionally socially present you are, the less lonely you will feel.

Focus on quality connections

Don’t feel like you have time to juggle a huge friend group? Still want to protect your peace as an introvert who loves her nights in? Never fear—combatting loneliness doesn’t have to mean suddenly becoming a social butterfly. Focusing on the quality of the time that you spend socializing can have a similar effect to broadening your social circle in terms of feeling socially connected. “Listen actively, ask questions, and show that you care about what’s going on in their lives,” Walton says. “This kind of genuine engagement makes people feel valued and understood, which can significantly reduce feelings of loneliness.” When you’re the right kind of engaged in a social interaction, not only will you feel less lonely, but the person you’re with will feel less lonely, too. It’s a win-win.

At the end of the day, life is far too short for the height of our happiness to be a night in with a glass of wine and a television show. Blissful as those nights may be, real self-care is about ensuring that our communities are thriving, too. Though addressing the loneliness epidemic might feel daunting, there is something incredibly heartening in knowing that we have to do it all together. So consider this your sign to DM that girl you think is cool on Instagram to grab coffee, form a first-name-basis relationship with your barista, organize a game night with your friends, and call your mom. Wellness aside, life is so much better when we do it together.