Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Long and Persistent History of Loneliness in America

It’s been a topic for decades. Some blame cars. Some blame uninviting public spaces. Maybe there are some small things communities could do that would help.

A “happy to chat bench” in Salem, Mass.
A “happy to chat bench" in Salem, Mass. Can making public spaces more inviting diminish loneliness by bringing people together? (City of Salem)
We’ve all been talking a lot about loneliness lately. That won’t surprise you: Loneliness was an A-list debate topic all over the country even before Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released his latest report on the subject last year, describing loneliness in America as a national epidemic.

There’s no need to go over all the details; they should be familiar enough. I’ll mention just a couple: Murthy concluded that nearly half of Americans report significant stretches of loneliness in their daily lives; that being lonely resulted in vastly increased cases of physical illness; and, most shockingly, that it led to a 50 percent increase in cases of dementia among older adults. These are the things we are worrying about.

But there are some interesting nuances to this issue, and they emerge clearly from a brief dip into modern history. Searching the Internet for articles on loneliness, I was struck by the fact that most of them appeared prior to Murthy’s alarming findings. You might suspect that this was connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in fact most came out before the coronavirus struck in 2020. So COVID-19 isn’t the fundamental problem. What’s more: If you stretch your inquiry back further into the 20th century, you find laments about loneliness as a precursor to Murthy’s report in the writings of a whole raft of academics and journalists.

“You can feel lonely,” Murthy wrote, “even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections.” The sociologist David Riesman said that even more definitively in 1950, as co-author of the best-selling book The Lonely Crowd, which argued that as people become fixated on how they appear to others, they feel lonely when they don’t seem to measure up. We rarely think about the 1950s as a period of mass loneliness in American life, but it was a familiar topic then just as it is now.

If you cast your glance back a few decades further, you find the same thing. Murthy wrote last year that much of the problem was that “in the last few decades we’ve just lived through a dramatic pace of change. We move more, we change jobs more often, we are living with technology that has profoundly changed how we interact with each other.” And it makes us feel alone.

But something like that was all over journalism and scholarship about the 1920s. The historian Roderick Nash wrote that “the typical American in 1927 was nervous. The values by which he ordered his life seemed in jeopardy of being swept away by the forces of growth and complexity.”

Are we living in a time of increasing loneliness exacerbated by a devastating national pandemic? Maybe. Maybe not. A Gallup Poll released last year, just before Murthy’s analysis, reported that 17 percent of Americans reported experiencing significant periods of loneliness. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, it was 25 percent. The crisis seemed to be abating, at least a little bit.

YOU MAY SUSPECT, having gone along with me this far, that I consider the concern over a loneliness epidemic to be merely a hyped anxiety about a perennial problem. That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Just as paranoids sometimes have real enemies, loneliness alarmists have some legitimate present realities to point to. Important societal changes pointing toward isolation have gathered steam in the past few decades.

Group activities and memberships have been in steady decline, as the sociologist Robert Putnam pointed out in his 2000 book Bowling Alone. In the 21st century, as Putnam himself has written, they seem to have declined further. Putnam initially attributed much of the aloneness phenomenon to the addictiveness of television; now social media have multiplied its effects. Interacting with others through video games or online affinity groups offers companionship of a sort, but a solitary gamer or digital groupie is a loner nevertheless. It’s entirely plausible to blame social media for the fact, noted by Murthy, that young people aged 15 to 24 are reporting 70 percent less physical connection with their peers than a similar group did 20 years ago.

A few years before Putnam published Bowling Alone, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote in his book The Great Good Place that American communities were losing their “third places” — the cafés, bars, bookstores and beauty salons where we used to flock to find fellowship and avoid the pressures of intense relationships at home. Oldenburg’s book came out in 1989. An examination of the numbers in the ensuing years tells us that bars in some big cities may be holding their own, but the other third places he cites have continued to atrophy.

And of course there is the pandemic. Thousands of social gathering places in America lost their clientele in the worst COVID-19 years, and while they have rebounded to some extent, the number is below what it was pre-pandemic and below the level of vitality that existed when Oldenburg wrote.

Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the dramatic increase in single-person households that has marked the early 21st century. Roughly 8 percent of Americans lived alone in 1940; in 2020, the Census reported, the number was 27.6 percent. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls the rise in single-person households “the biggest demographic change in the last century that we failed to recognize and take seriously.” Much of this increase is the simple residue of middle-class people living longer: The number of people living alone in their 80s and 90s is astronomically higher than it was in the mid-20th century. Still, Gallup reports less loneliness among senior citizens than among 18 to 25-year-olds. At least, that’s true for older people who have lots of money. It’s not so true for those further down the socioeconomic scale.

SO THERE WE ARE. Societal anxieties about rising loneliness have been with us for the past century, but a combination of trends and events in the last two decades have made the anxiety worse, and probably made the underlying problem somewhat worse as well.

The question is what, if anything, we might do about this. Murthy has a few suggestions. Some are pretty vacuous, such as his recommendation that we ought to be “cultivating a culture of connectedness.” Connectedness would be a big help now. But we’re talking about a complex societal problem that no act of public policy, at any level of government, is going to solve.

Murthy does have a few tangible recommendations. He thinks local governments ought to build more parks, create more libraries, improve public transit and extend paid family leave. Those are all reasonable ideas. Getting us out of our lone-driver cars and into public conveyances might make the most sense. Some of those reacting to Murthy’s report have singled out automobiles as the primary cause of our current social isolation. “American cities nurture loneliness,” the magazine Yellow Scene reported recently, “by hyper-focusing on cars to the detriment of alternative transportation and neglecting the creation of quality public spaces.”

But would doing these things keep substantial numbers of us from feeling lonely? I’d like that to be true, but even if we did them, I’m not so sure the numbers would move all that much. If they want to achieve some short-term results, perhaps localities should start by doing some very small things. Some of them have started doing them. Over the years, our parks have accumulated quite a few anti-social pieces of infrastructure: They have built unnecessary fences, placed spikes on sittable ledges and taken out benches instead of making them more inviting. Reversing those sorts of decisions would be a decent start.

West Palm Beach, Fla., has installed moveable chairs in its parks; research has shown that to be a modest incentive to sociability. Salem, Mass., has installed what it calls “happy to chat benches.” Some intimidatingly large apartment buildings have experimented with music corners and tiny libraries to bring residents together. Some supermarkets in Europe have put in slow checkout lanes that encourage customers to make conversation with the checkout clerks. Sounds bizarre, but maybe it does some good.

IN THE END, THOUGH, it might be more honest to treat loneliness not as a current epidemic but as a condition of modern life. Jesus, as we know, said that the poor would always be with us. We might extend his wisdom to cover the lonely as well.

Along those lines, we might pay some attention to the quirky ideas of the architecture critic Tom Brennecke, who believes that if people are going to navigate our cities in a state of loneliness, we should focus on accommodating them rather than changing them. Brennecke believes, for example, that singles become despondent in public places because they don’t feel welcome there. “In fact,” he wrote in 2022 in the urbanist journal Next City, “many lonely people seem to seek social withdrawal and may, paradoxically, also benefit from being by themselves. … Public spaces should be designed to invite people to feel welcome coming alone.”

Brennecke is a little light on ideas for making this happen. He does have a couple. He thinks parks should use plants, shelves and bushes to keep individuals from feeling overly visible or exposed. He would like to see parks mark off areas designated for undisturbed walks.

Could we address loneliness by doing our best to make it less crippling? It strikes me as a wacky idea. But in dealing with this depressingly persistent problem, we might not want to dismiss any idea as too bizarre to think about.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
From Our Partners