With so many problems in the world these days, loneliness often gets pushed onto the backburner.  In a sense that’s understandable, but is unfortunate nevertheless, because this issue is very real, affects tens of millions, and can impact both emotional well-being and general health.  And over time, it has been getting steadily worse.  

“Loneliness is absolutely an epidemic in our society,” says Harvard professor, psychiatrist and author Dr. Robert Waldinger. “The problem reaches across the world, across all age groups, all income groups, and all demographics.” 

The loneliness he’s talking about is not someone who wants to be alone and feels good about that or someone who experiences this feeling once in a while. Rather, it’s about someone who yearns for friendships but hasn’t any.  In other words, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd and in a marriage, but perfectly content sitting alone on a mountaintop.  

According to Dr. Waldinger, research suggests that loneliness can increase stress.  It’s also associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and sleep problems.  Also, it may feed on itself, as anxiety and depression isolate someone from people and keep them from doing the things they’d like to.    

Decades Ago

Loneliness is not a new phenomenon, but is becoming worse because of trends in society.  Studies have shown that it started becoming widespread in the 1950s, when changes in society and the family dynamic became more pronounced.  That’s also when networks of family and friends began breaking up as people moved to pursue better jobs or to be closer to colleges and universities.  These are generally considered valid reasons for moving, but they nevertheless disrupt family and social relationships that in some cases have been established many years before.

A study done by Cigna in 2020 found that 60% of respondents said they felt lonely much of the time, and the loneliest group were young adults aged 16-24.  This number levels off in middle age but increases again among older adults, presumably the result of their losing people they felt close to. 

Too Many Screens?

One reason for the increase in loneliness is the widespread and growing use of technology.  When TV became popular in the 1950s, it brought never-before available entertainment into the living room.  But that came at a high price: less time spent with family, friends, and community.  

People were content to stay at home and watch the tube rather than socialize.  They spent less time outdoors, bonded less with family, friends, and clubs, and even slacked off on attending religious services.  The common denominator: All of these led to greater social isolation and increased feelings of loneliness.  The screens we use for work and play grab and hold our attention and, in the process, keep us away from people we care about.   

Last June, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said that loneliness was more than just a bad feeing; he called it a “corrosive condition with grave consequences.  Social disconnection puts us at increased risk for depression, anxiety and suicide, as well as heightening our risk for stress-related physical ailments like heart disease, stroke and dementia.”  Even more shocking: Its impact on our risk of premature death is on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

Research confirms a connection between health and loneliness.  Among other concerns, it shows that people who are lonely late in life have more rapid brain decline.  “Many studies show that the single choice that we can make that’s most likely to keep us on a good path of well-being is to invest in our relationships with other people,” says Dr. Waldinger.

It’s not just close relationships that make us feel connected.  Even casual relationships such as with the mail carrier or the cashier at the grocery “do a lot to make other people feel like they belong and make us feel more like we belong.”

There is also a high financial cost to loneliness – much greater than what one might imagine.  According to the CDC, “Loneliness costs the US economy an estimated $406 billion a year, in addition to the estimated $6.7 billion a year in Medicare costs for socially isolated older adults.”    

A separate government study found that stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually.  And a study by Moultrie Health found that depression, suicide, and addiction in the U.S. associated with chronic loneliness cost the economy $960 billion annually.  

Possible Solutions?  

Cross River Therapy reports that 52% of Americans say they feel lonely; 47% say their relationships with others are not meaningful.  So is there any way to escape from the clutches of this illness?

The short answer is yes. It may be easier for very young people, because their lives are more flexible and usually can be more easily adjusted than those of people whose habits have been established over years. 

Many parts of Queens, the Five Towns, and Brooklyn are blessed with numerous shuls, yeshivas, and chesed organizations. They need all kinds of help, and volunteering at one would be both gratifying and could put lonely people in touch with like-minded individuals who may befriend them.  Volunteer tutoring at schools, and joining committees or the sisterhood at the local shul may accomplish the same.  Also, contacting old school chums or co-workers might lead to a revival of old friendships.  

Dr. Waldinger notes that some lonely people may unintentionally be sending signals that they don’t want to be approached.  On a related note, even a quick phone call to someone homebound or ill could go far in brightening that individual’s day.

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May called loneliness one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.  She even appointed a minister to deal with loneliness.  As she pointed out, one of the sad realities about modern life is that it so easily leads to loneliness.  But a bright spot is that even a few kind words can help overcome that.

 Sources: cdc.gov; cnn.com; crossrivertherapy.com; gov.uk; marketplace.org; mind.org.uk; moultriehealth.org; You Tube: how loneliness is killing us according to a Harvard professor  Robert Waldinger, Freethink Media

Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.