Are you lonesome tonight?

Is the U.S. experiencing an epidemic of loneliness? George Will, citing a book by Sen. Ben Sasse argues that we are. Sasse contends, in Will’s words, that “Americans are richer, more informed and ‘connected’ than ever — and unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled.”

I haven’t read Sasse’s book, but Will’s summary of it leaves me skeptical. How do we measure loneliness? Will notes that in the last quarter of the 20th century, the average number of times Americans entertained at home declined almost 50 percent. But is this evidence of an increase in loneliness or a decrease? One can argue that a decrease in entertaining at home means that people feel less lonely — if they felt more lonely they would entertain at home more, there being few if any obstacles to doing so.

Will also notes the increase in deaths by drug overdoses. But increased loneliness is far from the only possible explanation. Increased stress and decreased spirituality are among the other possibilities.

Based on Will’s presentation of Sasse’s thesis about loneliness, it seems the Senator is relying in part on his complaints about obsessive use of social media and the rise of tribalism in politics. These may be valid grievances, but I agree with Yuval Levin that it’s important to treat the question of whether loneliness is getting worse in America as an empirical one, to the extent possible.

Levin informs us that the Joint Economic Committee in Congress recently published a paper on the subject of loneliness that tries to do just that. It concluded that more evidence is necessary to answer the question of whether loneliness has increased, but the evidence that does exist should give us serious pause:

The discussion of loneliness has suggested to media consumers and policymakers that it is an epidemic—that loneliness has increased substantially in recent years and is a pressing problem in need of urgent attention. These claims, however, are based on a flawed interpretation of the research literature. In fact, there is little evidence that loneliness has increased.

Again, I agree with Levin who concludes:

[W]e talk about loneliness as we do because we lack the vocabulary to describe the kinds of problems that arise when institutions grow weak and communities unravel. Those problems are very real and they are near the heart of what is happening in America now, but maybe they are not the same thing as loneliness—and maybe seeing that can help us better understand them.


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