The Loneliness Epidemic: Understanding the Psychology of Social Isolation

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

This is for all the lonely people
Thinkin’ that life has passed them by. - Lyrics by America

The Pervasiveness of Loneliness

Loneliness is a universal human emotion that has been studied extensively in psychology. It is a complex and multi-dimensional construct that can be defined as the subjective experience of social isolation, the feeling of being disconnected from others, or the perception of a lack of social support (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). While loneliness can be a normal part of the human experience, when it becomes chronic and pervasive it can have significant negative effects on physical and mental health.

The prevalence of loneliness has been increasing in recent years. According to a survey conducted by Cigna in 2020, 61% of American adults reported feeling lonely at least some of the time (Cigna, 2020). In addition, 35% of respondents reported feeling moderate to severe loneliness, indicating a significant and persistent sense of social isolation (Cigna, 2020).

Additional research has also highlighted the prevalence and impact of loneliness in the United States. For example, a study published in a prominent journal of Psychiatry found that 20% of Americans reported feeling lonely most or all of the time, and that loneliness was associated with a range of negative health outcomes, including depression and anxiety (Wang, et. al., 2018). Another related study, published in Perspectives in Psychological Science, found that loneliness was associated with a 26% increase in mortality risk, highlighting the serious impact of social isolation on physical health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015).

These statistics demonstrate the importance of addressing loneliness as a public health issue, and highlight the need for effective interventions to help individuals combat social isolation and build meaningful connections with others.

Causes of Loneliness

Several factors that can contribute to loneliness, including individual differences, social context, and life events. One of the most important individual differences is personality. People who are introverted or shy may be more prone to feelings of loneliness because they tend to have fewer social interactions and less social support than extroverted individuals (Baker & Oswald, 2010). Other individual factors that may contribute to loneliness include low self-esteem, poor social skills, and a lack of emotional intelligence (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

Social context is also important in understanding loneliness. People who live alone, have limited social networks, or lack close relationships may be more susceptible to loneliness (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Social isolation can also result from cultural and societal factors, such as discrimination or stigma, which can prevent individuals from forming meaningful connections with others (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

Finally, life events can trigger feelings of loneliness. For example, moving to a new city, losing a loved one, or going through a divorce can disrupt social networks and leave individuals feeling disconnected from others (Baker & Oswald, 2010).

Effects of Loneliness

Loneliness can have a wide range of negative effects on physical and mental health. One of the most well-documented effects is an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. Loneliness has been linked to a range of physical health problems, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and immune dysfunction (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). In addition, lonely individuals are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, overeating, and sedentary behavior, which can further exacerbate health problems (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

With respect to mental health, loneliness has been linked to a range of negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Lonely individuals may also experience decreased life satisfaction, reduced self-esteem, and a decreased sense of purpose in life (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

Interventions for Loneliness

Given the negative effects of loneliness, it is important to develop interventions to address this quality of life issue. One effective intervention is increasing social support. Social support can come from a variety of sources, including family, friends, and community groups (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Social support can provide emotional, instrumental, and informational resources that can help individuals cope with stress, enhance their self-esteem, and reduce feelings of loneliness (Baker & Oswald, 2010).

Technology-based interventions may also be effective for reducing loneliness by expanding one’s social network. For example, online social platforms and chat rooms can provide a means for individuals to connect with others who share similar interests and experiences, and can provide a sense of belonging and social support (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). However, it is important to note that the quality of these connections may not be as strong as those formed in face-to-face interactions, and technology-based interventions may not be suitable for all individuals (Baker & Oswald, 2010).

Similarly, engaging in meaningful activities or hobbies can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and can also help individuals meet new people and form new connections (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Volunteering can also be a valuable way to connect with others while also making a positive impact on the community (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

Mindfulness-based interventions may also be helpful for reducing loneliness. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment, and can help individuals develop a greater sense of self-awareness and self-compassion. Mindfulness can also help individuals cultivate a greater sense of connection to others and to the world around them (Baker & Oswald, 2010).

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors, has been utilized as an effective therapeutic intervention to help ease feelings of loneliness. CBT can help individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves and others, and can teach them new social skills to help them form and maintain relationships (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

It is important to note that the effectiveness of interventions for loneliness may vary depending on individual factors, such as the severity and duration of the loneliness, as well as personal preferences and values. For this reason, it may be helpful to consult with a mental health professional to determine the most appropriate and effective intervention for a particular individual (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

Loneliness is a complex and multifaceted construct that can have significant negative effects on physical and mental health. It can arise from a variety of factors, including individual differences, social context, and life events. Fortunately, there are several effective interventions for addressing loneliness, including social support, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and technology-based interventions. By understanding the causes and effects of loneliness, and implementing effective interventions, we can help individuals improve their overall well-being and quality of life.


Baker, L. R., & Oswald, D. L. (2010). Shyness and online social networking services. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(7), 873–889.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Cigna. (2020). Loneliness and the workplace: The Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index 2020. Retrieved from

Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218–227.

Holt-Lunstad J., Smith T. B., Baker M., Harris T., & Stephenson D. (2015, Mar). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 10(2):227–37. doi: 10.1177/1745691614568352. PMID: 25910392.

Wang J., Mann F., Lloyd-Evans B., Ma R., & Johnson S. (2018). Associations between loneliness and perceived social support and outcomes of mental health problems: a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry, 18(1):156. doi: 10.1186/s12888–018–1736–5. PMID: 29843662; PMCID: PMC5975705.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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