Adam didn’t have much life experience. God had just recently breathed life into him and placed him in the newly-planted garden of Eden. After giving him one simple rule, and a dire warning of the consequences for breaking it, God stated a simple but shocking fact about Adam’s personhood: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18, NASB). Not good? Here Adam was, sitting in a literal paradise on earth, yet God said his present situation was “not good”! Of course, we know the rest of the story; after an animal parade, followed by a quick nap, Adam found himself participating in the first marriage. But the implications here are vast. Within that first marriage, the possibility of human reproduction was created, and with it, the possibility of a complex human society, made up of many individuals with various relationships between each other. We tend to think of God’s pronouncement “It is not good for the man to be alone” in the context of the goodness of marriage—which we should. But I believe it implies far more. Man is not designed to be alone; he needs connections with other people, whether that be a spouse, family, friends, or neighbors. When individuals are alone and isolated from other people, the situation is not good.
Research has borne this out: social interaction has been found to be consistently correlated with psychological well-being. Interestingly, the greatest positive impact on psychological well-being is obtained by having a moderate amount of social interaction; once you have a moderate amount of social interaction, adding additional interaction has diminishing benefits.1 In other words, different people may have different amounts of social interaction, but we all need some to be happy and mentally healthy. Social connection affects not only our mental health, but our physical health as well. Social isolation is correlated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease2 and a 29% increase in the risk of death.3
Social isolation is bad, but how prevalent is it? A German survey found that 12% of adults were socially isolated, though social isolation was heavily correlated with age, ranging from 5% for young people to 22% for the elderly.4 In-person social interaction has been declining over the past two decades, with the most pronounced decline among young people.5 Of course, the past few decades have also seen a revolution in communication technology, with the rise of texting, social media, and video chat. To what degree has the loss of in-person interaction been offset by a rise in online interaction? And how do various forms of online interaction compare to in-person interaction? These are new and pressing questions; so far, no established consensus has emerged. We will likely only begin to fully understand the long-term consequences of our digitally connected age in the coming decades.6 Despite the complexity of these questions, social isolation is an issue that deserves serious consideration. What can we do to alleviate unhealthy social isolation?
In contrast to social interaction, which can be objectively measured, the term “loneliness” is defined as “a subjective distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections.”7 Notably, “inadequate refers to the discrepancy or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience.”8 In other words, if the person in question feels they have inadequate connections, they are lonely, even if they objectively have more connections than other people who do not consider themselves lonely. This highlights an important distinction between loneliness and social isolation. It’s possible to be socially isolated, but not feel lonely. On the flip side, loneliness can be experienced even when surrounded by other people. Contrary to what you might expect, social isolation and loneliness are not highly correlated.9
So how common is loneliness? In a 2019 survey of Americans, 52% of respondents reported feeling alone “sometimes” or “always.” 45% of respondents said they sometimes or always feel they are no longer close to anyone.10 That’s a lot of lonely people! Not only is loneliness unpleasant, it has been associated with a 26% increased likelihood of death.11 Contrary to popular belief, loneliness is actually most common among young people, and least common among the elderly,12 although it tends to increase from age 75 and up, probably due to declining health and widowhood.13 It’s interesting to note that social isolation tends to trend up as we age, while loneliness tends to trend down. It seems that as we get older, we tend to have fewer social contacts, but the social contacts we have tend to be of higher quality, which results in an overall decrease in loneliness.
Historically, measures of loneliness in the population have remained relatively consistent over time, even declining slightly in some cases.14 However, since 2012, there has been a marked increase in loneliness among adolescents, with rates of loneliness nearly doubling by some measurements.15 Rates of depression and self-harm have also increased over the same time period.16 Of course, this time period coincides with the rise of smartphones and increasing internet usage among adolescents. Could that be the reason for the increase?
In this article, I’ve presented a lot of statistics. But what does all this practically mean for us as Christians? That’s a bigger question than can be addressed in a single article, so in the coming weeks, various Think Truth contributors will offer their thoughts and opinions on topics surrounding loneliness and social isolation. We’ll explore the modern demise of friendship, the effects of social media, and more. We’ll also consider what we can do to help alleviate loneliness and social isolation, both in our churches and in the surrounding communities. So stay tuned; more to come!
- Dongning Ren, Olga Stavrova, and Wen Wei Loh, “Nonlinear Effect of Social Interaction Quantity on Psychological Well-Being: Diminishing Returns or Inverted U?,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 122, no. 6 (June 2022): 1056–74, https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000373 or https://pure.uvt.nl/ws/files/62773502/SP_Ren_nonlinear_effect_of_social_interaction_quantity_JoPaSP_2022.pdf.
- Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community (Washington, DC: U.S. Public Health Service, 2023), 26, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf.
- Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, and David Stephenson, “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Faculty Publications (Brigham Young University) 1996 (March 2015): 14, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/1996. Article originally published in Perspectives on Psychological Science 10, no. 2 (March 2015): 227-237, https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352.
- Susanne Röhr, Felix Wittmann, Christoph Engel, Cornelia Enzenbach, A. Veronica Witte, Arno Villringer, Markus Löffler, and Steffi G. Riedel-Heller, “Social Factors and the Prevalence of Social Isolation in a Population-Based Adult Cohort,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 57, no. 10 (October 2022): 1961–63, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-021-02174-x.
- Viji Diane Kannan and Peter J. Veazie, “US Trends in Social Isolation, Social Engagement, and Companionship – Nationally and by Age, Sex, Race/Ethnicity, Family Income, and Work Hours, 2003–2020,” SSM – Population Health 21, (March 2023): 101331, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2022.101331.
- Kannan and Veazie, “US Trends in Social Isolation,” 10.
- Surgeon General’s Advisory, 7.
- Surgeon General’s Advisory, 7.
- Holt-Lunstad, et al., “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality,” 4.
- The Cigna Group, Loneliness and the Workplace: 2020 U.S. Report, 4, https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-report.pdf.
- Holt-Lunstad, et al., “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality,” 14.
- Cigna Group, 2020 U.S. Report, 8.
- Louise C. Hawkley, Kristen Wroblewski, Till Kaiser, Maike Luhmann, and L. Philip Schumm, “Are U.S. Older Adults Getting Lonelier? Age, Period, and Cohort Differences,” Psychology and Aging 34, no. 8 (December 2019): 1152, https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000365 or https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/pag-pag0000365.pdf.
- D. Matthew T. Clark, Natalie J. Loxton, and Stephanie J. Tobin, “Declining Loneliness Over Time: Evidence From American Colleges and High Schools,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41, no. 1 (January 2015): 78-89, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167214557007 or https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268880862_Declining_Loneliness_Over_Time.
- Jean M. Twenge, Jonathan Haidt, Andrew B. Blake, Cooper McAllister, Hannah Lemon, and Astrid Le Roy, “Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness,” Journal of Adolescence 93, no. 1 (December 2021): 264, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2021.06.006 or https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197121000853.
- Twenge, et al., “Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness,” 257.