« Freakonomics Radio

407. Is There Really a “Loneliness Epidemic”?

2020-02-26 | 🔗

That’s what some health officials are saying, but the data aren’t so clear. We look into what’s known (and not known) about the prevalence and effects of loneliness — including the possible upsides.

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more about how there is shaping the future of agriculture visit crop science, dot bear dot com. So Eric when you read an article that says you know more than half of all Americans say they regularly experience ex emotion or only twelve percent of Americans feel such and such what is that experience? like for you as a a sociologist Rachel, but the time I think, while that's pretty interesting and about half the time pulling out my hair thinking. No doubt don't say that Eric Klein Hamburg is professors, theology at New York University, fortunately, I find that journalistic reporting will whose survey data when is useful for the story and they I don't care that much about whether the data underlying it is reliable and
what's wrong with survey data, a lot of Ray Data is based on a sample. That's not really worth generalizing from surveys asked questions that will work for a petition. Time and place, but might not work very well after that, which means you can get a snapshot of a moment in time, but not a dynamic portrait of something overtime. Would you like an exam Of how survey data gets used in the media? Ok, here's an example: atop doktor calls at a national health crisis, not obesity or heart disease a condition that is so common. You actually may not think of it as a mental health problem loneliness. That's right, loneliness people who struggle with loneliness and oblivion. Shorter lives, and they also Increased risk for heart disease, depression demand, anxiety and a host of other conditions, and that is the time
doctor who rang the alarm and what he calls the loneliness epidemic. My name is vague, worthy and I was trained as an internal medicine. Physician recently served as certain General United States. Morty is author of the forthcoming book about loneliness. It's called together. Well, if you re told me several years ago that I would be talking about thinking about loneliness, I would have said you're, probably wrong. He was surgeon. General Morty met with many people suffering from chronic illness and addiction, but I found it behind. Many of those stories were stories of a deeper emotional pain, and painters often manifest his loneliness and realise that There is something very important happening here, which is that people dollar ass. The world are experiencing a sense disconnection from the people in their community from more abstract society appears. Rosalie part of I became curious about Why? That was a moment: it's cool
sentences were for their help. These consequences are said to be dire, perhaps best evidenced by one jarring statistic that meat wave through the media, longline as it turns out it is a strong predictor of early death may be as much as alcoholism and smoking fifteenth cigarettes, fifteen cigarettes, fifteen cigarettes and day today on four I'm a radio. How real is the loneliness epidemic, and is it really that risky? Are there any upset there to loneliness and are there any solutions to it? That's coming up right after this from stature and Gunnar productions. This is pre economics. Radio broadcasts explores the inside of everything. Here's your home
Stephen Definite, Tracy Crouch is a member of parliament in the UK had been an MP since two thousand and ten and so? I was formerly, world's first loneliness minister. Why did the UK feel compelled Have a loneliness minister lighting a shows, no prejudice, it doesn't matter who you are how successful you are, how You are where you live in trade whether you work with you, don't work the simple truth: his loneliness can hit at any given time, and why loneliness, be the governments concerned, because this action something that can have an enormous public health consequence. Think we are in loading us where we were with mental health? A decade ago, people didn't talk about poor mental house whereas now we are removing the
stigma around mental health, and that means that we can tackle some of the issues relating to mental health, and that was very much the same with loneliness spout, removing the stigma being low, nay, king were how come wage show that people stay connected to society. The very idea of loneliness minister struck some people comical. This is so british. The American Comic Stephen Colbert. For instance, they have identified the most ineffable human problem and come up with a most coal bureaucratic solution between, he crouched didn't mind ass. She thought that it was a very good opportunity to get the message out there that we in the United Kingdom recognised that the issue of loading This is something that is serious and that was reckoned. So she by the number of countries you got in touch with us to come and talk about how
a dot twenty two taco lightness, I'm not included by the former chief medical officer from the United States, that former chief medical officer being be back Morty, that's right! Yes, where did found compelling the argument that loneliness was increasing and that loneliness can be damaged, even physiologically damaging the mechanisms for how it works and for how it impact our light, I think, are still in the very early stages. It being understood and We have a lot of data that show so strong associations between loneliness and how including shorten lifespans and conditions and heart disease what we have far less of the kind of studies it beyond the shadow of a doubt, prove causation. But when stories about loneliness hit, the media that doubt tends to be glossed over. Consider
much reported story, waiting, loneliness and smoking researchers, suffering through, it can be as lethal smoking fifteen cigarettes and day. That statistic is often cited, so loving gimme, a little background of where that came from. That is Juliet hope. Instead- and I am a professor of psychology and Neuroscience Brigham Young University homestead was led author, the two thousand ten paper were that fifteen cigarettes a day comparison came from she and her co? Authors did was called a mega analysis rolling up nearly a hundred and fifty earlier studies that covered three hundred thousand research subjects, and so this matter now so I really wanted to look at the overall effect of being socially connected or lacking social connections on overall risk for premature mortality, some measures of social connection or objective marital status, for instance, or
network size or whether you live alone and other our more subjective like feelings of loneliness. Yet so it's good to define loneliness up front, because I think it's used very loosely and and often be used interchangeably with social isolation and other related terms. So how does her field define loneliness loneliness has been defined as that subjective discrepancy between are actual level of so connection and our desired level of connection. Ok, that's a pretty concrete definition and Maybe not what you were. I might typically consider loneliness. Let's hear it again that subjective discrepancy between are actual level. Social connection and our desired level of connection with that definition.
You can see why loneliness may have spiked lately with them eyes of social media. It's easier than ever to see other people doing things that you'd like to be doing being with people you'd like to be with, but it's also import to know the difference between loneliness and social isolation, and so someone could be objective Lee I selected and feel lonely, but it's also possible that you could be objective Lee. I selected and not feel lonely? So you may take pleasure in that solitude and, conversely, someone may have many people around them and yet still feel proof only lonely, ok, so loneliness and social
isolation are not the same thing and in their mega analysis, one stead and her colleagues looked at whether there was a relationship between mortality in social connections generally including loneliness, social isolation, marital status, etc. In other words, how important is social connection to how long you live? The participants in the rolled up studies were on the older side. Average age, nearly sixty four and they were followed for an average of seven and a half years. So what'd Lun stead find what we found was that those who were more socially connected across these various indicators had a fifty percent increase odds survival in the researchers controlled for social demographic differences, as well as apply
initial health status and cause of death. So what that means is that these studies followed people over time and they were fifty percent more likely to be alive at the follow up than those who lacked social connections or had insufficient social connections. Okay, so that looks to be strong. Then set longevity is at least strongly correlated with social relationships. But you could imagine that the causal relationship isn't so airtight. It could be, for instance, that people with fewer social can since may have other issues, personality or behavioral issues or whatever they make it harder to make pain, social connections and my concern was that by simply just stating the fifty percent increased OZ is survival that the general public and, to some extent, even perhaps the medical community.
May not necessarily know what to make of that or how to contextual lies that, in other words, hotlines dad didn't want to contribute two sensationalize reporting. We are constantly bombarded with the latest health findings and it's hard to know what to take seriously and what not to take recently, but she also didn't want her research fighting to get lost, so she and her colleagues tried to draw specific numerical parallels between the risk of low social connectivity and more common physiological risks. Things like alcohol consumption, obesity, air.
Pollution and smoking. Judging by the media's response to the fifteen cigarettes a day comparison, the message got through, but the nuance was lost. Oftentimes people will say that loneliness has a greater risk than smoking up to fifteen that's per day and of course, loneliness was one of the indicators, but it wasn't the only indicator. Remember the researchers looked at a whole basket of social connections, all of which, by the way, can be met, more tangibly. Then loneliness but in the media reports it was loneliness that stood out now. This does necessarily mean that loneliness doesn't Cree health risks. So how can you tell but start by asking a different question? Where does loneliness come from so the late John Cassio argued that loneliness
is a biological. Dr Cassio was one of the founders of a field called Social Neuroscience, much like hunger and thirst our biological drives. So hunger motivates us to seek out food thirst, to seek out water that loneliness as a biological drive. That motivates us to seek out others being around others. Cassio argued was a key to survival, so we gain added resources. By being around others. There is protection, from pressures to hers. There's protection from the elements on the flip side. There When were alone, we have to be more vigilant, and so throughout human history being around. Others has in essence ban a form. Protection and more effective use of effort. So when we are alone what's happening to us, so this activates regions of the brain that
turn signal our physiology to adapt to these situations to handle whatever situation were in. Venus is our bodies, Q, We need to get out in the world and participate in social life that again is the and why you sociologist Eric Klein Hamburg. So if you exe syrian, some loneliness in your life- that's not necessarily a bad thing that can be restored. If and it's not something. We necessarily want to eliminate, because LAW Venus is what motivates us to reconnect socially. The problem becomes when it becomes chronic loneliness places us in a threat state that again is former surgeon. General be big Morty. Whenever you're in a state of threat. You are concerned about
preservation? Morty believes this is how chronic loneliness can lead to bad health outcomes. The psychological stress of being in an elevated threat state can lead to biological responses like higher blood pressure and inflammation. You might also, come paper vigilant about potential dangers like the proverbial man eating lion lurking in the tall grass of our ancestors Savannah, and that's good, because I want to err on the side of things. It's a real threat because my survival may depend on it, but in day world you are in an elevated threats date for a prolonged period of time, not only is a exhausting, but that focus on yourself and that greater suspicion, if you will of people and events around, you can actually be a turn off other people. It was Morty who, as far as we can tell first called loneliness an epidemic back in two thousand, seventeen, which would seem to imply that the threat is not only large but
growing quickly. We don't exactly know how quickly loneliness is growing, but what we do know is that multiple studies, shown that loneliness is incredibly common, so, for example, if you look at A study that was published by the economist couple of years ago. They would Peggy there knowledge of adults in United States were struggling with. Loneliness is above twenty percent K is in a similar range between twenty to twenty five percent. The number of people struck with loneliness and the United States is in fact greater than that adults who have diabetes it Here, then, the number of people who smoke. For this reason, I think it's worth investing more in understanding in greater depth the concept loneliness, whose at greatest risk of loneliness and, most importantly, what we can do to address him coming up after the break. Yes, let's look into what can be to address loneliness, but it's also try to figure out, if
Venus is really is common, as we think you're listening to economic radio. You ve we'll be right back everybody, I'm Sumter and I'm an actress, and most recently you can see me on ABC mixed fish. I this is tie off and I'm the boss, a cabin hearts left out loud network and we the host of the sugar a sweet space where we are she to indulge on topics. We sometimes get left out of its face by four FAO Brown man. This is a place of community where we want you to feel lots of love, peace and laughed aloud I was pregnant, someone those I oh when our hair, when I was in labour, I was like I was having a orgasm grow airs go now, some of you now somewhere baling, maybe you ve not actually have an eye. This exists we space,
I would like us to see ourselves and be ourselves: get ready to open up top, laugh even cry with our sweet should amendment the ship is out now listen on stitches apple podcast. Wherever you get, your pat gas you're Klein, Hamburg, the, and why you sociologist has come to her a fairly nuanced and somewhat contrary in view loneliness, but he didn't start out that way. The story begins in nineteen ninety five in Chicago after terrible heatwave, seven hundred and thirty nine people died. Klein Hamburg was just starting graduate school at Berkeley, but I'll was his home town is mine. The I about it. Chicago prides itself as being the city of neighborhoods city of tight social connections, and this was such big puzzled to me in a wider, so many people in a booming amiss the metropolis in them nineteen
Andy's die of this heatwave after his first semester in Berkeley, he went back home, I said digging around and I looked at all the data and there this puzzle that the EP me I'll just picked up, which is that they had models that would predict how many people die. Given certain climate conditions and the deaths in the heatwave were far higher The weather didn't explain it the physiology of people in the sea and explain it. So I cannot but said he doing what I call the social autopsy right, open up and the skin of the city justly doktor doing an autopsy opens up the skin of body and try to diagnose the organs of broke down and the first thing I learned is that people died alone in the heatwave, because so many people were living alone. That basic fact. He said with something that people weren't really talking about. The sad thing about it, he death, is it so easily preventable if you're with someone else who recognise that one of the most, maybe, though most important risk factor for
or dying in the heatwave was living alone. He ultimately wrote a book about the tragedy called heatwave and this team of people living alone and dying alone was one of many themes in the book. The clambered new, he had stumbled onto an even bigger idea and planned new research project and it was my conviction that what the heatwave had uncovered for me Is this incredible spike in loneliness isolation, disconnection? What I thought he's going to discover and this new project. Wasn't it because I had become so individual stick, so am I so disconnected by another twentieth century marketplace the decline of public institutions that an even though you haven't used words to say at the tone of your voice implies that that's a purely negative, the end of everything I reminded you think it's bad out, thereby was going to show you just how bout it was enough. We have destroyed social ties,
I was down there. What has I was, I thought things were falling apart There is a tradition by the way in Canada european intellectual life that sees decline right. That sees, you know, we're bowling alone. It's the fall public man, you know the lonely crowd. I do think that the heatwave allow me to see something that really had not got insufficient attention, which is the fact that we have embarked on one of the most significant social changes in the history of our species in the room As of the one person household, when I learned in Chicago which the demographers in my the old had not really called attention to which in a cultural has France, is not paid attention to, but which is incredible fact about the world. Is that for the higher history of our species, we have lived in groups out of necessity. Now we needed to protect other we need to get food for each other. We needed by labour, and this amazing things started to happen in the early twentieth.
Tree and to really take off in the nineteen fifties, which is that for the first time in the history of our species, people start to settle down on their own and to live alone. Long periods of time, and now we ve got to the point where in them most, affluence societies on earth. There are enormous numbers of people living alone. This makes it sound as if living alone is, in some cases, a luxury or at least a choice, a preference according to two thousand eighteen estimates from the: U S and Spiro twenty eight percent of all? U S, households our single households net comparison, just nine per cent in nineteen. Fifty. By the way, this could help explain my real estate. So expensive in so many cities, even if the population isn't growing, there is demand for more units in Manhattan. Forty four percent of households are single households. This trend is also strong and places.
Denmark, Sweden and Norway. So I'm not pollyanna about this error. I really think this is potentially a very big does your problem. But if you look at the big picture here, there's something far more interesting. Work what's interesting. Kleinenberg says is that the choice to live alone does not necessarily create loneliness, because one of surprising I discovered, is that the more people who are living alone than ever before, but act the people who live alone are pricing, we social there more likely. People who are married to socialize with their friends with their neighbours. They are more likely to participate in all kinds of shared social activities and going to the gym going to concerts going to libraries cafes. Things like this even be vague, Morty caution against equating lowness with loneliness. Don't think it's as simple, as that? I think just because you live alone does not mean that Europe consigned to a life of loneliness,
Just because you live alone doesn't mean that Europe somehow leading an inferior life, people live alone firm. Different reasons and the lot of times They choose to live alone, but I do think like with all this. Patients we make in our life that there are upsides and downsides and here's the other thing Eric Klein. Hamburg is also convinced that living with someone does not necessarily insulate you from lonely, I interviewed many people who had lived with her romantic and were now living alone, and they said to me one after the next. As lonely, as I sometimes feel when I'm on my own There's nothing lonelier then, with the wrong person, theirs Oh feeling more lonely than having a domestic partner with whom one was once intimate with whom once had a feeling of trust. Action and coming home in feeling disconnected from that person. So clamber grow another book. This one called going
Although the extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone, this led him to ask an important an obvious question. How does our current level of loneliness compare to levels of loneliness at other historic moments? His answer This is an area where there is a variety of data. All kinds of surveys of different quality If you just read journalism, you would have no idea. His favorite example is commonly cited statistic from the G s s. Or general social survey which has been administered by the national opinion, research centres since nineteen, seventy, two, it's a hike. A it's done repeatedly, and there is a famous problem of one year in the U S where the measure of social isolation winter. I too,
you're social isolation, the Gs S asks people if they have close friends or confidence with whom they can discuss topics of great personal importance. The reason for this specific, but some Odd question is that social relationships can be really hard to pin down in a survey, but having no confidant is a pretty specific Parker for some reason and theirs, out of debate about this in the two thousand for general. Social survey, people reported much higher incidence of having no. Confidant for decades. About one in ten people said they had no confidant Two thousand, for about one in four responded said that in how bigotry Oh, is this finding? If you happen to be a sociologist, this is a blockbuster fine. In sociology I mean, if you think, about big changes, an american social life like if you
The demography meetings in someone finds a three percent shifting fertility, we're Haifa, each other in the hallways enough, someone's ordered a keg to the hotel room. It wasn't just this shocking finding about no confidence that got a lot of attention. It was the explanation, in an academic paper on the Piazza survey, for why this was the case. So what's the big thing there? happens in our cultural and social life between nineteen. Eighty, five in two thousand for internet, the internet, exact So how amazing is this story now the thing that's to make us better connected than ever before that that's going to create meaningful social relationships for us turns out to make. More alone. Then we ve ever been. My everything about the internet is that is the single best thing to blame. Anything. That's right, and it's such a big part of this, Ray of. Why we're all talking about isolation and loneliness these days, but it turned out. There was an issue,
with this amazing new finding well we're now pretty sure that there is a problem with the data that it was an anomalous result, some of the yes, a survey. Data had been misquoted Many answers at went into the no confidant column should have actually into the declined to answer column. So what did the no confidante finding look like on subsequent GS surveys, founded on subsequent such surveys, but what's the truth, then, what's the empirical truth about how much hope, lonelier. We are today so this thing, is I don't think we now did. I think it's a mystery. So before I came to the studio today, I wanted Check into what's the latest year has there been some survey that come out recently that I don't know about. Maybe the research is getting better, so I found it Did it got a lot of news attention in December of twenty eighteen and it really Where did that? Americans are more than twice as lonely as we used to be.
Study was done by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and in the first few lines. The article we read that estimates of a marriage has level of lower. Yesterday vary from seventeen to fit seventy percent of the political agenda and when the big problems we have in the loneliness debate is that our measures of loneliness dramatically over time when people ask whether there is the epidemic of loneliness that again the Brigham Young, psychologist, Julianne Hotlines, dad it's a tough question, because it's not entire lay clear whether this is something that were finally just recognising or whether at something that is increasing and part of that problem is has loneliness, has not been systematically measured in the population and
Various surveys may use different kinds of methodology, so just to give an example, just in two thousand eighteen there is. The signal survey the BBC survey and the Kaiser survey. All had different prevalence rates of loneliness in the? U S and we How worried about loneliness since the rise of industrial? society, since we started moving away from the village and we agglomerated into towns where we didn't know as many of our neighbours we worried about loneliness We worry about the loneliness of farmers worried about the loneliness of meant dwellers of people die? in cars of people who Two movies are people who got the telephone instead of going into social life, and so that is by no means to say that the loneliness is not a social problem or that we should worry about people who get isolated. But if you think that's the only part of the story- your mission,
something I think it's safe to say. We have been missing something, especially if we get most of our loneliness news from breathless tv reports and bombastic headlines, but still, even if loneliness isn't growing, as some people suspected is even if loneliness is not as damaging as some people believe it is the factory loneliness while it may be a useful biological signal, loneliness- can also be hurtful unwell. Did social isolation cannot be a good thing. So, let's hear about some solutions, Anyone have any good ideas. Never and it turns out, he said, service serving other people is a powerful back or, if you will out of loneliness, that's the point research in general we beg Morty and one of the things its powerful about service is that each
the focus away from you and on two other people, and it also reaffirms for you that you have value to give and to share with the world Tracy crouch the you its former loneliness minister, wants to see an increase in, what's called social prescribing say what we found is that one in five doctors appoint Osso solely to do loneliness Robin other medical conditions, so He started using social prescribing in the UK for whole variety things, for example, with a world, to say, rather than just prescribing people pills which hopefully suppress appetite, without she get them to do, walking clubs or in a light sporting at too teeth, and so now we rode out social describing we have link workers in our doktor said trees that can have a whole list of organizations locally. That p get involved with to effectively China.
They remain connected in society. As for Eric Klein, he thinks the best loneliness solutions have to do with how communities are conceived, an organised. He wants to see better. Social infrastructure is, he calls it the gap, in places that are public inaccessible, economic libraries and parks and playground. Public transit systems that work well. This is The decline in Burg plays with in his latest book, called palaces for the people but also the real investment in public housing in subsidize housing and in shared housing units. Their programmes at do kind of a co op housing for older people like one place. In Stockholm has placed caught fire not been, which definitely actually pronounce, but that's how I said and on the first floor there has been open kitchen and dining room area, and if you live in the building, you commit that three nights, you will contribute to the cooking cleaning for that
active in every morning. Everyone in the building can sign in to data that night you never have to be there, but you always have the option to have assured me I think but this conversation should be opened our eyes to. Is this so there are actually all variety of ways to organise a society. There are all kinds of ways for us to settle for us to invest in public goods, for us to share or be private, We are locked into a very narrow band of choices right now coming up next time on for economics radio, why are so many millennials gravitating towards socialism over capitalism? I say Scandinavia, you say Venezuela, it's because a political buzzword. But what does socialism actually mean? I personally wish,
use the word socialist. I find the words socialism in the: U S, context kind of old, almost anachronistic, gel Holly to live in a socially society. You don't think about it. Like that, what we talk about when we talk about socialism next time on for economics, radio for economics radios produced by stature and w productions, this episode was produced by Daphne Chan. Our staff also includes Allison, Craig Love, red ribbon, Zack LE met Hickey Perry, Huggins and Grin Wallace. Get help this week from dreams foster or into is Isabel, o Brien. Our theme song is me fortune by hitchhikers, all the other music was composed by and we scare up, you can get free connivance rate any progress up. If you want the entire back catalogue, use the stitched up. Poor go to reconnect start, come weaken
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Transcript generated on 2020-04-03.