Why are middle-aged Americans so lonely — and what habits can we learn from Europeans?

Why are Americans lonelier than Europeans? What experts say.
Why are Americans lonelier than Europeans? What experts say. (Getty Creative)

Loneliness is a major problem in the U.S. The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, sounded the alarm about America’s “loneliness epidemic” in 2023, citing the connection between loneliness and a greater risk of health issues such as cardiovascular disease and depression. Now, new research published by the American Psychological Association finds that middle-aged Americans are much more likely to experience loneliness than their European counterparts. Could cultural differences be to blame?

Frank Infurna, the lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, tells Yahoo Life that middle-aged adults are reporting poorer mental and physical health compared to peers in the '90s and early '00s. Infurna wanted to see whether this pattern extended to loneliness as well. So his team looked at information from surveys of 53,000 adults in the U.S. and 13 European countries, focusing on the answers from individuals age 40 to 65.

“We were surprised by the magnitude of the effects,” Infurna says of the large differences in loneliness rates between Europeans and Americans. However, Infurna says it does make sense why this is the case, as there are many plausible reasons why people in the United States are experiencing more loneliness than their European peers.

Infurna says that in the U.S., cultural norms such as a focus on individualism, increased social media use, declining social connections and increasing political polarization may further divide Americans and keep us feeling isolated. He notes that middle-aged adults may also experience weaker family ties, increased job insecurity and income inequality — all without the social safety nets that European nations enjoy regarding family leave, unemployment protection and child care support.

Aaron Breedlove, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that he believes the economic policy of the U.S. provides a “trickle down” effect on our culture, as the American version of capitalism places “a significant emphasis on the individual,” focusing on things like “economic market competition, consumer choice, individual rights and the idea of things being based on a so-called meritocracy,” described as a system that "rewards the best and brightest." This culture can disconnect us from others, causing us to see the world as an individual competition.

Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, tells Yahoo Life that this focus on individualism, which encourages personal growth and independence, “often sidelines the importance of building strong social connections.”

Hafeez gives this example: If you’re focused on moving forward in your career or education, you may be more likely to move around for the next opportunity, which can limit your long-term relationships. Ultimately, she says, living in a culture that glorifies work and getting ahead individually means people will pick opportunities that benefit them over things that may strengthen their social connections.

There isn't enough research yet to know definitively that American culture causes loneliness, especially when compared to the cultures of different European countries. However, experts point out that building community and social connections is good for combating loneliness — and that's something built into European culture that's often missing from most American lives.

Breedlove notes that during his time living in Germany, local sports, shopping and work tied him more deeply to his community, making him feel less lonely overall. Not every place in America, however, has such options — but that doesn’t mean you can’t find your place.

Hafeez notes that there are many things you can do if you want to combat loneliness, especially in middle age — and they all tie back to creating a community. Here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer: Engaging in volunteer work can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment while also offering opportunities for social interaction and connection with others in the community.

  • Foster connections with neighbors: Get to know your neighbors and build a sense of community within your neighborhood. Initiating conversations, offering assistance or organizing social gatherings can help foster meaningful connections close to home.

  • Attend local events: Stay involved in community events, such as cultural festivals, art exhibits or educational workshops. These activities can provide opportunities to meet new people and engage in meaningful social interactions.

  • Stay physically active: Regular exercise not only benefits physical health but also improves mood and reduces feelings of loneliness. Consider participating in group fitness classes or outdoor activities with friends or acquaintances.

Of course, it’s hard to make time for social connections when many Americans are struggling to afford their daily lives, which may mean taking on another job or spending free time caring for children or elderly relatives due to skyrocketing costs of caregiving. Social safety nets can help provide some financial support and stability, which, in turn, might also make it easier for people to take the time to build and nurture long-term relationships.