Americans have long worried that their countrymen are lonely, but recently, mild concern has given way to outright panic. In 2017, the former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that loneliness in the United States had reached epidemic proportions. And it’s not just Americans who are anxious—in January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the country’s first minister for loneliness.
While apprehensiveness about elders is particularly intense—the aging grandparent who lives alone and hasn’t talked to a soul for days has become a recurring motif in stories about the crisis—no group is exempt from concern: A recent study suggests the unnerving possibility that young adults may be the loneliest Americans of all.
Explanations for this plague of loneliness abound, ranging from declining participation in organized social activities and religious organizations to the ubiquity of technology such as social media and cell phones that suck up people’s attention. Often, though, policy makers and pundits single out two culprits: sagging marriage rates and the increasing number of Americans living alone.
Amid the public outcry, the Senate Committee on Aging convened a hearing last April about loneliness and its potential consequences. One of the experts who testified, the Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, explained the problem to a group of senators by declaring that “more than a quarter of the U.S. population (28 percent of older adults) lives alone, over half the U.S. adult population is unmarried, and one in five have never married.”
Indeed, the trends over the past half century are remarkable. In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married, and just 13 percent of households were occupied by one person.
It may seem obvious that unmarried people and solo dwellers are isolated, and therefore at risk of feeling lonely. In fact, some scholars actually use living alone as an objective measure of isolation. Yet a closer look at the lives of this group suggests something quite different. For a large chunk of solo dwellers, living alone is not a burden: Research shows that many people who live alone excel at creating and nurturing personal relationships. Rather than forgoing relationships, they are redefining them in more expansive ways. And the same is true for single Americans, regardless of whether they live alone.
To determine whether solo dwellers are lonelier than people who live with others, researchers typically just compare the loneliness of the two groups of people. But this comparison ignores the matter of choice—the people who never wanted to live alone are often mixed in with those who savor their own space. Another problem is that solo dwellers differ from those who live with others in important ways. For example, among seniors, solo dwellers are less financially secure than those who live with others. In a large study that statistically controlled for financial differences, such that people who lived alone were compared to similar people who lived with others, the results were startling: The people living alone were less lonely.
Similar problems plague the study of loneliness among single people. Those who want to be single are frequently tossed in with the ones who yearn to be married. (In a 2017 survey, 58 percent of adults who had never been married and 23 percent who were previously married said they wanted to marry.) Sometimes researchers compare adults who do not currently have a spouse or romantic partner to adults who do, as if people who are recently divorced or widowed and may be acutely lonely are no different from people who have been single all their lives.
It’s becoming clearer that living alone isn’t the big driver of loneliness that it’s often made out to be. Before the 20th century, living alone was practically nonexistent in America. But it’s what many seniors in the United States chose once Social Security and Medicare offered them a modicum of financial freedom. And it is what women chose once they were no longer tethered to a husband for economic life support.
The same trends are continuing today. Living alone can be challenging for older people who have mobility or health issues, and yet, nearly 90 percent of seniors want to age in place, having developed attachments to their home and their autonomy. In a recent study in which single women in their 30s and early 40s were asked to state their No. 1 priority, 44 percent said it was living alone, while just 20 percent said it was getting married. Among young adults, living on their own is a point of pride. And roughly 6 percent of committed American couples are living apart, in homes of their own, not because job constraints have forced them to, but because they want to.
As many single people are realizing, adults don’t need a spouse in the house to shield them from loneliness. The protections against loneliness are fairly straightforward: People who have more friends, or confidants to turn to in times of need, tend to be less lonely. And both single people and those who live alone tend to do equally well at cultivating friendships and maintaining ties with others.
While some lament how declining marriage rates are fraying the social fabric, results of national surveys show that such concern is misplaced. Compared with both currently married and previously married people, lifelong single people stay in touch with their siblings and parents more and socialize with their friends and neighbors more. Single people are especially likely to be there when other people’s needs are the greatest. When aging parents need help, they are more likely to get it from their grown children who are single than from those who are married.
And marriage isn’t a magic elixir to fix social isolation: Couples who move in together or get married become more insular over time. They have less contact with their siblings and parents and spend less time with their friends.
Solo dwellers and single people aren’t necessarily socially isolated. In many cases, they’re not even physically isolated, either. When I traveled around the country to research my book How We Live Now, I found that solo dwellers stake out all sorts of living arrangements. Two friends who live side by side on the same street are both technically living alone but they are hardly isolated; they see each other all the time. Communal, dormlike living is becoming an increasingly popular option for adults in major cities.
As the frenzy over loneliness in the United States crescendoes, perhaps critics are overestimating just how serious and pervasive the problem really is. A report released just this month from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee concluded that “there is little evidence that loneliness has increased.” Yet, chilling findings—Loneliness is more dangerous than smoking!—go viral and debunked studies—Americans have perilously fewer confidants than they did before!—continue to make the rounds. Meanwhile, millions of single people and solo dwellers continue to live their lives fully and joyfully.