Feb 13, 2020

Why Science Should Take on Loneliness

Loneliness, addiction and suicide form a vicious cycle, and science should be part of the solution.

By Andrew Serazin

Our social lives are filled with such incredible, visceral richness — encompassing births, deaths, marriage, divorce, self-doubt and epiphany — that we crave interpersonal connections as much as we desire nutrition or shelter. We experience a social loss as an injury to our body. Evidence from many fields proclaim that the story of human civilization is more about the triumph of cooperation, self-sacrifice and altruism than it is about the threat of violence, subjugation and greed, despite our hard-wired negativity bias.

Yet all too often, our existence is atomized, and our physical, emotional and economic health are detached from each other. The reality is that individual happiness, longevity, health and wealth seem to be interwoven with the strength of our relationships. Preventing loneliness may be a key intervention to improving public health and economic outcomes at the same time.

In recent years, the United States has faced a growing rate of “deaths of despair.” Deaths of despair — attributed to mental health problems, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse, for instance — surged from 22.7 per 100,000 Americans in 2000 to 45.8 per 100,000 Americans in 2017. All of this despite the incredible growth of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that are meant to bring people closer together.

There is substantial research supporting the idea that loneliness — typically referred to as “painful social isolation” by psychologists and neuroscientists — can substantially shorten life expectancies. According to a recent analysis by Our World in Data, supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), most studies have found a correlation between loneliness and increased likelihood of death. Even a short period of loneliness can lead to poor health later in life. Being lonely, it seems, could be as bad for your health as being obese or smoking. Loneliness has also — not surprisingly — been tied to increases in dementia and depression.

In addition, social support and a strong sense of community are not just important for physical and mental well-being, but is also tied to positive economic outcomes. Case in point: when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, West Germans with family in the East experienced a 6 percent increase in income compared to those without family in the East. The reason seems to have been that the reunification of Germany also meant an expansion in their social networks.

Even today, job seekers continue to rely heavily on social connections — friends, family and work connections — despite a wealth of online tools to help them. Globally, productivity, meaning an individual’s total economic output per hour, is more than four times greater than it was in 1950. This trend may be closely tied to the falling costs of creating and maintaining personal and professional ties, which in turn leads to more efficient diffusion of ideas and knowledge.

Grappling with these issues will require major investment among research funders. Here are a couple of ideas on where to start making progress.

  1. Develop better measurement tools for social connections. It’s worth noting that there is a lack of evidence supporting the oft-repeated claim that rich countries are experiencing a so-called “epidemic” of loneliness. It simply isn’t the case that loneliness is increasing across generations. Current techniques used to measure social relationships and their effects are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between loneliness and solitude.
  2. Rigorously test innovations that reduce social isolation. A number of recent studies are starting to show the power of human connections. For example, neuroscientist Rachel Wurzman has argued that opioid addiction is exacerbated by loneliness and various social support interventions may improve addiction recovery. Put simply, reducing loneliness and social isolation may be key to mitigating some of our most pressing public health crises. At the Human Network Initiative — an interdisciplinary research institute backed by Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital — researchers have found that stroke survivors with larger baseline social networks experienced improved physical function and participation in everyday life. The researchers argued that patient outcomes could be improved by recruiting members of stroke survivors’ social networks to to be part of physical therapy activities, by engaging patients in social programming provided by community groups, and by means of “peer mentorship and online support groups, in which stroke survivors aid each other.” In short, social connections are an untapped resource for preventing and treating physical illness.

What does all of this mean? I believe we need much more research on social isolation and the power of person-to-person connections. And research should include practical innovations focused on increasing social network size and strength. The results could have multiple transformative benefits ranging from better mental health to increased incomes, not just to individuals, but to society as a whole.