Loneliness in America is a crisis. The solution is more structural than individual

Two teenage girls in a skatepark, sharing a cell phone Getty Images/Westend61
Two teenage girls in a skatepark, sharing a cell phone Getty Images/Westend61

Four years ago, the world went into lockdown as cases of a novel virus named SARS-CoV-2 began to climb. In the early days, this meant people barely left their homes as cities and states implemented stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures which inevitably placed limits on peoples’ social lives.

Instead of gathering in person after work, we turned to Zoom happy hours. Universities across the country went from teaching in classrooms to offering full-time curriculums online. Traveling to see long-distance families was no longer a safe option leaving many to go without a hug or seeing a familiar face for years. While this process saved many lives, it did come as a cost for many people's mental health: it worsened their feelings of loneliness.

Since then, the U.S. government has declared that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency, a move that many have interpreted as life “going back to normal.” Yet poll after poll shows that many Americans are still struggling with loneliness. According to a recent American Psychiatric Association monthly poll, 1 in 3 Americans cited they have felt lonely at least once a week over the past year.

Younger people are more likely to report these feelings than other age groups. United States surgeon general Vivek Murthy has said that the epidemic of loneliness is still a "public health crisis on the scale of the opioid epidemic or obesity." It’s true that COVID-19 led to an increase in loneliness around the world, but it was also a problem before the pandemic, too.

During the height of the pandemic, I interviewed Cat Moore, the director of belonging at the University of Southern California, who teaches a class on how to create meaningful relationships. At the time, we spoke about what loneliness meant in the coronavirus age, how people could connect meaningfully virtually, and what advice she had for those feeling extra lonely. Four years later, I caught up with Moore to see how the state of loneliness has changed after lockdowns, what’s working in terms of solutions — and what’s not.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The last time we spoke was during the pandemic. I’m curious in your opinion, how has loneliness in America improved or worsened since then?

The pandemic, not surprisingly, was correlated with increased levels of loneliness. I remember distinctly the first semester that students came back in person. The whole university was trying to gear up and to anticipate: what will students be like when they come back? I think workplaces were in the same situation. People thought, "Oh, it’s going to be another roaring '20s where people are like we can finally do all the things and see each other and hug each other." Or will people be in a frozen state?

At least experientially, what we found is that it was a complete mixed bag. I think that one of the hardest things to work with is when there isn't one or two standard responses to a catastrophe like COVID. How do you then support students who are all experiencing different things, with their loneliness and how they want to re-engage with their social skills? It’s been an exercise in lying down old approaches to a problem, and having to sort of pick up a completely different framing of there is not just one solid state problem that we then create a new tool for. COVID-19 almost gave rise to an almost infinite variety of forms of loneliness.

I actually think that that's kind of the nature of loneliness anyway, but it's always experienced in hyper-particular complex ways. But I think certainly post-pandemic, whatever was left of our social norms and social landscape was more or less flattened and liquefied.

So we're kind of working with a radically new context that I just refer to as a “social frontier.” No one knows what they're doing, really. We still have simple basic principles of human interaction, but the structures of society are so changed. Not everyone in positions of authority and education and leadership have the skill set to empower pioneers. There's a really big problem with trying to deal with loneliness post-pandemic.

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Can you elaborate a little more on how you've seen loneliness on a college campus evolve from before, during and after the pandemic?

There was a fundamental change in the social structures and people's habits and patterns, expectations and capacities. With this new social frontier, I think it also really did change for a lot of people on a very deep kind of existential level around their values. I think before the pandemic, loneliness was just not as much a part of social consciousness. The students might have been experiencing it a lot but didn’t have the language to communicate what it was. It seemed to be more to be located in what you would expect as a transition from your home base to a brand new college.

Any transition can be filled with loneliness. I think during the pandemic, that not only ratcheted those things up, but it introduced just the communal experience of isolation at a level that no one who's currently alive has ever experienced before. I think that people's social energy shrunk, like their capacity to hang out as much or with as many people, kind of shrunk. And I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that's part of the process of having more agency and wisdom around them.

Last year, Vivek Murthy released the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. One year later, what are your thoughts on what’s been implemented and what hasn’t yet? What is working in our society and what isn't? 

I think anytime someone who is that big of a microphone is trying to spotlight an issue, it’s a good thing in that it's raising public awareness. I know one big win that policymakers were able to get a bill passed that allows doctors to do social prescribing. At the same time, loneliness, belonging, these are extraordinarily complex, multifaceted, multi-layered experiences that are going to require everyone and everyone everywhere to be doing something.

It’s the human desire that when there's a big problem, there will be just the big solution that takes care of it. And really, my only concern with these big public health dominated conversations. Loneliness is not inherently a medical problem or a mental health problem. It has effects downstream. The goal is not to get rid of loneliness. It’s not a problem any more than saying anger or sadness is a problem.

I think we have to sort of slow down and be like, what is the nature of loneliness? And it's an experience, and that some of the most important leaders and saints and movement heads in history have experienced lifelong profound loneliness. I think it's really important to me to normalize loneliness within the context of the human experience and empower people to befriend it.

As long as we're thinking that its presence is a problem, that it needs to be thought of as a condition or disease, we're shortchanging the power that loneliness can have when we know what to do with it. I think we need to really start thinking of people as the generators have solutions in their own lives and to trust them that if they’re given the space and the support, they can not only learn what to do when they inevitably experience loneliness, but also to let them know that they have the power to generate solutions.

What have you seen works in helping Gen Z cope with loneliness?

I’ve never been able to see if someone has crossed the threshold without asking them: How bad is it? Are you shutting down? Are you able to function? Are you able to reach out to anybody? Or are you sliding into the existential problem of I'm alone and therefore there's something wrong with me therefore I stuck there? Because that's a dangerous slide. But you really don't know until you ask someone because people have different thresholds, and tolerances.

What helps on an individual level is literally sitting down with someone in a neutral environment, whether that's outside or in a coffee shop, somewhere where there's not a power dynamic and there are no expectations. And literally, you're slowing down. You give it at least 30 minutes. Set the time aside and make space to listen to them. And ask them some basic questions that just start with: tell me what you're experiencing. If we don't know how to slow down, to create that space and ask that question, we will never know what else needs to be done.

In that context, you're just helping students even articulate what they’re feeling and what they are willing to try. You’re helping them re-see places they’re already in, class and walking places, which helps them re-see opportunities in their routines to make micro-gestures of friendliness. You’re shrinking their world and helping them focus so they don’t get overwhelmed. In this, you’re also validating their most basic need for belonging. Your presence matters.

More broadly, at USC, we’ve had success with programming like an open mic night, a storytelling night or game night, where kids are meeting people.

It seems like it’s been a struggle for you to do what you’ve wanted to do to ease the loneliness crisis on campus because of bureaucracy. Can you share more of what barriers you have faced?  

There is a known need that our institutions need to be rebalanced. Research institutions are literally designed to ask and answer research questions. They’re not designed to cultivate conditions of belonging for all the students. There are efforts that professors make, there are efforts that the staff make, but as an institution, it's organized and incentivized to do research.  So what happens is that most of the funding and resourcing goes towards research.

We get so much research on loneliness, and all of the ancillary constructs around it — mattering, social isolation, hope, purpose — like these things are all, at root, interrelated. And yet, we still don't even have an agreed construct of what belonging even is. I think there's a massive disconnect between people experiencing loneliness, what they need, and where research leads off.

Other groups trying to be part of the solution don’t have the right resources. And honestly, I think a lot of it is I think it's also a bias towards feminine approaches of relationship building. The relational laborers are predominantly women — [though] not always, in every society. There’s a lot of bias against this approach that wants you to justify everything from stuff that's already come before or existed. But I’m like we’re in a social frontier, and this is requiring radically different relational embodied ways of being and imagination and the system can't process that.

There is a lot of talk about scaling relationships, but I think the most you can do is scale conditions. Like creating enough time and space and money in the system for relational laborers to be able to do what they do.