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Loneliness Is a Pandemic Too (And Here’s What We Can Do About It)

In my immediate circle, you didn’t “drop by.” But in my grandparents’ homes, the practice was not just accepted, but expected. If my grandmother heard that a friend was shopping at the JC Penney near her home, she’d say, “You were only a few blocks away. Why didn’t you come over?”

I loved afternoons in my grandparent’s house in LA, laying on the living room floor with one of their L. Frank Baum books, the gauzy sunlight making stripes across my legs, while the adults chatted in the next room about music and mutual friends and the TV show, Bonanza. I swore that when I grew up, I would follow their example and not my mother’s: friends would be welcomed whenever they came to the door. 

That’s not what happened, of course. I was too busy, on most nights, to invite people over, and no matter how many times I told people they could come at any time, not a single person has ever taken me up on that invitation in more than 20 years. My grandparents were never really lonely. Up until a couple years ago, I was.  

As a society, we have become much more carefully scheduled, less social, and much lonelier. According to numerous surveys, social isolation has doubled among many adults since the 1990s, and social isolation is deadly. Loneliness and social isolation increase a person’s risk of death by 25% to 30%.

In terms of pure interaction, we’re more connected than ever before. If you can’t reach someone in an email, you can send a text. If it’s a real emergency, some of us pick up the phone. Barring that, we can send a message through Facebook or slide into their DMs on Instagram. But if “likes” satisfied our need to socialize, we would all feel a strong sense of communal belonging.

But we know on some level that’s not how it works. Just over two decades ago, most Americans had three close friends. Now, that number is down to two and the percentage of people who report they have no one they could talk to about serious issues has risen to 25%. One in four Americans is socially isolated—no pandemic required.  

Part of the problem is that we’re cutting out expressions of our basic human-ness, because they’re “inefficient”: boredom, long phone conversations, hobbies, neighborhood barbecues, membership in social clubs. We smile at the anachronisms of the past when people had time for things like pickup basketball and showing slides of Hawaiian vacations to their friends. How quaint, we think, that our grandparents joined sewing circles.

But shouldn’t our ancestors have had less time than we do? After all, we have microwaves and dishwashers and gas lawnmowers and the internet! We have robot vacuums and AI assistants that tell us the weather and set our alarms. If you add up all the time saved through technological advancement over the past several decades, shouldn’t we have hours of excess time in which to do as we please?

These are the questions I was asking in 2018 as I grappled with my own feelings of despair, long before a virus swept the planet. I would cancel plans to go to parties because I felt exhausted and stressed. All I wanted to do was sit on the couch, watch Netflix, and relax. But one of the most relaxing activities a human can engage in is social interaction.

And even in a time of crisis, deep, real social interaction is possible. “A rising tide can indeed lift a variety of boats,” John Cacioppo and William Patrick write in the book Loneliness, “but in a culture of social isolates, atomized by social and economic upheaval and separated by vast inequalities, it can also cause millions to drown.”  

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