At most points in human history, being alone meant mortal danger and was to be avoided at all costs. It is only in recent decades that our risky experiment with loneliness has become almost mainstream.
A high incidence of single households is now a mark of a wealthy society. This is partly a consequence of avoiding or delaying marriage and childbirth, and of single housing becoming more affordable, but it has serious implications.
When we live alone we are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviour, such as smoking or eating badly, because no one else can see. Studies show that people who live by themselves are more likely to suffer from alcoholism, high blood pressure, insomnia and weak immune systems.
In developed countries the share of people who report having friends or relatives they can count on has been steadily dropping over the past 15 years.
Older people are consistently worse affected: on average 53 per cent of Americans aged over 65 spend more than eight hours of waking time on their own every day according to my analysis of data from the American Time Use Survey.
The trend remains unchanged for people over 60. But compared with a decade ago, the rise in the number of young people who spend more than eight hours on their own is alarming.
Time on your own is one thing, feeling lonely is quite another. And young people seem worse affected by the latter. A March 2022 ONS survey found that 40 per cent of women aged 16 to 29 in the UK report “feeling lonely often, always or some of the time”, compared with 22 per cent of women over 70. For men, some 22 per cent of this age group report feeling lonely, compared with 13 per cent of the over-70s. And of course, the impact of Covid lockdowns cannot be ignored.
Aside from the effects this has on individual health, there is an impact on societies, too. Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge found evidence that feelings of social exclusion can make people more fearful and aggressive: with few superficial interactions our sense of reality can become distorted. Another study found a link with violent extremism. Hannah Arendt painted loneliness as fertile ground for terror in her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism.
A number of countries, including the UK, Japan, Denmark and Australia, are trying to tackle loneliness. Those searching for solutions might want to visit the small English town of Frome to see its innovative approach to social isolation.
The town’s GP practice employs staff who reach out to lonely people in the area. There are talking cafés and “talking benches” where these NHS employees are available for a chat. Taxi drivers are given information on services for vulnerable customers.
The data makes the argument: from 2013 when the initiative started to 2017, emergency hospital admissions in the town fell 14 per cent. During the same period, they rose 29 per cent across the rest of the county.