An epidemic of American loneliness

My wedding day (first one!) in 1992…still very close pals with Marion, who I met in our freshman English class at

University of Toronto

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s now deemed so large a problem that U.S. Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy says it’s as damaging as smoking for our health:

From his recent essay in The New York Times, (my boldface added):

At any moment, about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. This includes introverts and extroverts, rich and poor, and younger and older Americans. Sometimes loneliness is set off by the loss of a loved one or a job, a move to a new city, or health or financial difficulties — or a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Other times, it’s hard to know how it arose but it’s simply there. One thing is clear: Nearly everyone experiences it at some point. But its invisibility is part of what makes it so insidious. We need to acknowledge the loneliness and isolation that millions are experiencing and the grave consequences for our mental health, physical health and collective well-being.

This week I am proposing a national framework to rebuild social connection and community in America. Loneliness is more than just a bad feeling. When people are socially disconnected, their risk of anxiety and depression increases. So does their risk of heart disease (29 percent), dementia (50 percent), and stroke (32 percent). The increased risk of premature death associated with social disconnection is comparable to smoking daily — and may be even greater than the risk associated with obesity.

I’ve blogged about this many times, but clearly it’s not just me!

I lived in Canada ages 5 to 30, with a year in Paris at 25 with 27 fellow journalists, ages 25 to 35; I was the youngest, at 25.

I never had a problem elsewhere making or keeping friends.

While I’m only in touch with three people from my Toronto high school and a few from university, I later made friends through my work, neighbors, friends of friends…

The photo above is testament to this…as Marion lives very far away from us in British Columbia but made the long journey to New York to join me then. We still email often and schedule long phone calls. Our lives have been very different (she has three daughters and two grandchildren) but also have some very deep issues in common.

In Paris, we all vaulted between English and French, our fish-out-of-water-ness much tougher for people from North America, India, Africa, South America and Japan than for the multi-lingual Europeans. Having had to leave behind home, friends, family, work, pets — everything! — for eight months, meant we became our own support group. There were some very awkward moments when our cultural differences — especially our haste — caused offense and we needed to apologize and explain. But some of the friendships we forged then remain so deep that decades later we’re still delighted to visit one another and stay in touch.

At 31, I moved from Montreal — where I had very quickly made two close female friends, both single, as I was then, who lived in the same apartment building — to small town New Hampshire. It was a nightmare socially: my then boyfriend (later husband) was a medical resident so he was gone a lot of the time and exhausted when home. There were no jobs and no ways I could detect to meet friendly people. There was no Internet then. The only people in our social circle were all married, pregnant or joggers….none of which applied nor appealed to me. I tried hosting a few people for meals, but only one reciprocated in my miserable 18 months living there.

I had never ever been so lonely and it very much damaged my mental health, which is one reason I insisted we move to New York.

Why does friendship feel so low-value in the U.S. ?

— precarious jobs force many people to prioritize work and income over everything else

— low-paid, non union jobs do the same

— a culture where so many people feel guilty if they’re not constantly being “productive”. Sitting for an afternoon with a friend, or several, over a glass of wine — as I’ve done joyfully in Paris, Croatia, Toronto and Montreal (and once in Manhattan!) — is seen as weirdly slothful

— a culture that fetishizes individual needs over everything else; few friendships seem to have the ability to weather/resolve conflict and move on

— people move around and lose touch

— the social triage of wanting to avoid COVID

— having Long COVID

— being exhausted by caregiving

— especially in a time of high inflation, few places exist that don’t cost money (like cafes, bars, clubs, restaurants) where people can just relax for a few hours in a quiet, attractive and welcoming environment and maybe strike up a friendly conversation with someone new

— if you didn’t attend any sort of schooling with someone, you seem not to exist. I find this so weird, especially since I arrived in New York at 31

— family takes precedence over everything after work, from feeding newborns to moving far away from old friends to live closer to grandchildren. Friends? An afterthought once all the usual ceremonies (weddings, christenings, graduations, etc) are done

— wealth is a huge dividing line. People with a lot of money seem to think the rest of us aren’t worth knowing. Whatevs

— racism

— politics, especially since 2016

— transactional “friendships” where, once they’ve gotten what they need from you, you’re dropped

— lack of curiosity. Without fail, my closest friends have lived outside their home countries and have traveled widely, whether for work or pleasure, people who, like me, have had a range of life experiences and faced the challenges of adapting to (and enjoying!) other cultures.

I am very aware these are generalizations and maybe too personal to me as someone who has never had one job here for more than a few years and made work-pals. Nor do we have kids, the way most people seem to make friends. My closest friends here I made through freelancing, two from church and one from spin class.

Canadians don’t fling themselves across the country the way Americans do, for work or education, and our social and professional circles are smaller, so maybe we just retain closer relationships for other reasons.

This has also been an issue for me because, as I’ve written here many times, I don’t come from a close or loving family, quite the opposite. We don’t do birthdays or holidays together or get together for special occasions. My late stepmother was clear she didn’t want me around much and my uncle and aunt, both long dead, lived in London and were busy with highly successful entertainment careers. My friends are my family.

Many of you might have very deep ongoing American friendships.

If so, I envy you!

I am really looking forward, in late June, to seeing old and dear friends in Toronto, my hometown I left in 1986, that I have known since my late teens — at university, through my work, friends of friends. I haven’t been back in a year. I even reconnected with one woman from Grade Five (!) a few years ago as she became a neighbor and friend of one of my good friends.

I’ll have lunch with four pals from high school there as well.

Can’t wait!

Do you ever find loneliness an issue?

How do you manage it?

18 thoughts on “An epidemic of American loneliness

  1. It’s not easy to manage lobeliness Caitlin. You just end up accepying it a nd living withit.I make an ffort with proplr butthere’s no interest in relstionships as friends.
    I have had one friend fo 47 yesars, since our children were small and he visits once a month usually. That’s great but he’s in Canada or a month now to visit his sister. I have kind neighbours but not frieends, visiting nurses are often the only people

    1. Sorry to read this, David. Truly. This is a real challenge.

      My “solution” for now, and we are very grateful, is having a handfful of much younger pals (in their 30s, 40s and 50s); I have a long phone date skedded Monday with one and another is visiting us Friday, Only one lives nearby.

  2. Isee for days at a time. I have no-ne to go for a coffee with or who is ready to accept an invitation for coffee at home. No offers of a home cooked meal. I must exude a negativity or something that they don’t like. Huge Hugs Caitlin.

  3. Ruth

    I’ve lost several friendships because of COVID. I’m forced to take it seriously because I have an autoimmune disease. My book club, which was a reliable source of socializing, couldn’t wait to get back to in-person meetings, forcing me to skip them. A couple of other members also can’t attend in person. Another friend who kept in touch regularly dropped me because, in her opinion, COVID is over and I need to get with the program.

  4. it can certainly be a challenge at times, especially with me being single currently and most of the people I am friends with are coupled up. I think it’s important to make an effort to stay connected and maintain friendships. I really make an effort to reach out, meet up, and stay connected

  5. I have been blessed and lucky in having many long-time friends that help me remain connected with people despite Covid and the restrictions of the past few years. In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, i’ve had regular weekly zooms with my college roommates from over 50 years ago and for a while, weekly zooms with my housemates from a communal house I lived in in 1974 – these are now monthly, but still wonderfully supportive. My experience has been that if I’ve ever been deeply connected with someone, it doesn’t go away and can be revived if both people want it.

    1. Thanks for sharing — and this sounds so nurturing for all of you!

      I agree with you about your final sentence…the real challenge I now find is that so few people seem to want to connect deeply with someone new.

  6. I have some close friends, one from uni days, but have lost touch with some and others have moved away — meaning our friendships are mainly virtual and maintained by texts, emails and video calls. And of course, some friendships which are solely virtual 🙂 But nothing beats meeting up for lunch or a coffee. I’d like to do more of that and meet more people, but I’m not sure how… It seems that people’s circles tend to narrow in their 30s, especially as a lot of people become occupied with marriage, babies and established social circles.

    I read this article about a woman making friendships in her 50s, which struck a similar note to your writing here:

    1. Thanks for that…

      For sure, I think our 20s are full of friends, the 30s marriage/kids until maybe early later in life people, ideally, have more time for it. If it’s not a priority, not sure how to make it so without feeling pushy or aggressive.

      I try to make a weekly play date in person…for sure.

      1. Absolutely. And I think the ease of making friends also depends on what’s going on in our lives. I was out of step with my peers at uni when I was late teens/early 20s as I was caring for my mother while also balancing my studies. And having those kind of weighty adult responsibilities seemed to scare many people away, or else they simply couldn’t relate.

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