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'All the lonely people' - How to help America's loneliness epidemic

If you’re lonely, you are not alone. A lot of Americans feel some loneliness in their lives. Still, if you’re lonely, knowing that might not help much — feeling alone is kind of par for the course, even if other people are feeling alone too.

In her new book, behavioral scientist Susan Mettes looks at America’s burgeoning loneliness crisis, and asks an important question: Is there anything leaders can do to help?

Mettes, an associate editor at Christianity Today, talked this week with The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy about loneliness, social media, and how churches can help.

Susan Mettes. Credit: Chad Bartlett/courtesy photo.

Can you give us a snapshot of how lonely we actually are right now? What are the numbers like?

Loneliness is pretty pervasive. About one-third of U.S. adults say they’re lonely every day.

That’s 14% who say they’re lonely all the time, and 19% who say they’re lonely every day. Another fifth say they’re lonely some but not all days of the week. That leaves just under half of U.S. adults, 47%, who said they hadn’t felt lonely during the previous week. 

But that’s only part of the picture of how lonely we are. The other part is, how much trouble is loneliness really giving us?

On the individual level, it’s usually not that debilitating. We gave people a pain scale of loneliness, from “barely noticeable” to “unbearable,” and almost half said they were somewhere in the middle, or a step easier. 

But that “usually” still leaves a lot of people who are not average, who experience loneliness that’s both excruciating and constant. And it shows up in our society.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said loneliness is a health epidemic, because it has effects on American health that are similar to obesity or frequent smoking.

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How do you define loneliness? What is it?  

Loneliness is when our relationships don’t meet our needs. We feel disappointed in our sources of fellowship and lonesome when there’s a difference between what we hope for and what we have. That can be really acute, as in the case of people who’ve been bereaved of a spouse. It can also be more general, like a person who’s moved to a new place and doesn’t have buddies.

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Can you dial in on social media a bit?

I’ve sometimes uncritically repeated the idea that people are more connected by social media than ever before, but also more lonely than ever before.

Is that notion basically right? Or is in need of nuance or correction?

Definitely in need of nuance!

I think it’s clear that social media poses a risk to our mental health, but that it’s also pretty complex.

No researcher I’ve seen has made the claim that there’s a direct, uncomplicated link between our society using Facebook and feeling lonelier. That is, that social media and only social media (not, for example, the declining participation in clubs or other groups) has caused us to be lonelier.

When it comes to how to use social media in a way that doesn’t promote loneliness, I find it helpful to think in terms of the quality of a relationship and of the tradeoffs of conducting it in that way.

So a low-quality relationship is one where there’s no in-person or live interaction, where sincerity doesn’t exist, and where there’s no mutual care. Sounds like a lot of social media, right? 

But some people manage to both participate in social media and to conduct face-to-face relationships where there’s mutual self-revelation, mutual liking, trust, trust rewarded—all these things that make for high-quality relationships. One study found that there’s a sizable group of people doing exactly that. 

And, for the many people among us who feel we need to stay on Facebook or Twitter for one reason or another, we should make sure we’re not shifting our social life online, but rather that we’re supplementing our high-quality interactions with online interactions, but not replacing them.

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There seems to be some data showing that middle-aged men are particularly lonely. And I must admit that this is one of those "asking for a friend" type questions. What's going on with middle-aged men and loneliness? 

Your friend is not alone.

Still, neither in the Barna data I worked with nor in other studies have men or women been consistently a lonelier group. And in the U.S., middle-aged adults are doing pretty well—better than younger adults, for sure, even if less well than older adults. 

In the course of writing and talking about this book, I’ve come across lots of people who are concerned about a group they or someone they love is in, whether it’s middle-aged, young, or older men, stay at home moms, working moms, people in cities, people in rural areas . . . there are lots of groups of concern. But despite our expectations (often based on personal experience), few of those groups end up being clearly lonelier than others.

We see the biggest categories with the most striking levels of loneliness in unmarried adults and younger adults. That’s not to say your friend isn’t lonely, or that loneliness among men of a certain age isn’t a problem. It’s just to say, well, lots of people are lonely. 

But there is something going on with men and loneliness, even if it’s not that they’re a lonelier category. It is that they have a friendship crisis that is more dire than the friendship crisis among women.

Men have fewer friends than they used to and interact with the ones they have too little. And looking at what’s going on with younger men, we can expect more bad news on the loneliness front: rates of marriage and higher education are disproportionately down among men, and both marriage and higher education predict less loneliness. American men will need to spend more time making and interacting with friends than they currently do, or they very well may emerge as a lonelier group.

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Obviously we need to read your book to find out more about what we can do to move things in a different direction. But can you say something about what church communities, in particular, can do?

Foster warm, secure relationships! There’s not a lot of success that has come from programs where one person talks and everyone else listens, although church leaders can be really helpful by explicitly saying people should talk to and care for their neighbors, should be open to new friendships, should take Jesus’ example of going to parties and hanging out with people he just liked (like Lazarus) and allowing all their time to be taken up with work, devotional time, and service. 

People also need to hear those they look up to spiritually say that uncomfortable feelings aren’t necessarily bad or embarrassing. I keep encountering specific examples and also data showing that laypeople can feel that they should always be upbeat if they’re good Christians. 

Leaders can also help by encouraging marriage among well-matched couples, as marriage has been shown over and over again to lead to less lonely, more satisfying lives. Simultaneously, churches need to minister to single people in a way that isn’t limited to trying to get them married.

There’s also not a lot of success that’s come from setting up events or programs to help people meet each other. But people do need to meet each other, and we need to make sure we’re leaving some space for that. 

We can also make sure that we’re laying the groundwork for good relationships of our own, by being trustworthy and sincerely caring; by questioning our own assessments that an interaction was bad or awkward and making sure we’re not undermining our own chances to be befriended. 

But at the end of the day, loneliness is something that yields only to those relationships we feel we can really rely on—and those take time to build.

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