Turn thou to me and be gracious to me;
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The Loneliness “Epidemic”: In Whom Shall We Confide?
A group of psychological researchers has recently opined: “Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity…In a recent report, researchers have predicted the loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.”
Though loneliness has been with us since before the time of the Psalmist, the research into phenomenon of loneliness has snowballed in the Western world in recent decades. In 2006, the American Sociological Review created quite a stir when it released the results of a 20-year-study from the University of Chicago comparing surveys of two samples of approximately 1,500 adults each, the first taken in 1985 and the second in 2004. This table provides is a summary of a few of the key findings regarding intimate relationships of close confidants, the lack of which can contribute to the loneliness of emotional isolation:
Modern Research Revealing an American Culture of Loneliness
|National Opinion Survey Year||1985||2004|
|Average number of people one can confide in about important matters||3||2|
|Modal number of confidants||3||0|
|People with no close confidants||10%||25%|
The researchers reported that “in spite of a large literature on declining civic engagement and neighbor involvement,” they expected that networks of close confidants would have remained stable. When the updated survey results came in the researchers stated quite bluntly: “We were clearly wrong.” So striking were these findings that shortly after, articles appeared in popular periodicals like USA Today, The New York Times, and The American Spectator, and many others, some headlining with the startling finding that one quarter of Americans have no one to confide in.
In 2010, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) published an extensive report that showed about one-third (35%) of their over 3,000 respondents reported significant loneliness. Other recent studies have estimated that up to 32% of adults experience loneliness and up to 7% describe intense feelings of loneliness. To get some sense of the magnitude of those percentages, with the current (2017) U.S. population of over 326 million people, around 142 million may be lonely and around 23 million may be lonely to an intense degree – truly a vast number of suffering souls.
Suffice it to say that the once relatively ignored subject of loneliness is clearly among the most important subjects of interest and concern to social scientists and medical practitioners in our time. Anyone at any age anywhere around the world can be subject to loneliness and the numbers are clearly climbing. The most common reasons given to explain the rise of loneliness in recent decades include increasing pressures of time and money, suburbanization, commuting and sprawl, electronic entertainment (especially television), and more recently the growth of the internet, cell phones, and even the emerging field of robotics. There are also some reasons related to Christian faith.
Psychiatrists (and spouses) Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz express concern that America’s primarily Protestant culture can overemphasize self-reliance and under-emphasize the need for interpersonal connection. They cite sociologist Robert Bellah, who warned of “the near exclusive focus on the relationship between Jesus and the individual, where accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior becomes almost the whole of piety.” Further, based on interviews he conducted, Bellah noted: “If I may trace the downward spiral of this particular Protestant distortion, let me say that it begins with the statement, ‘If I’m all right with Jesus, then I don’t need the church.’ ”
These points are not made to denigrate views held by some Protestants (and perhaps by some Catholics as well), but to point out that if we are to truly to become awakened as Christians, we will awaken to each other’s needs, including needs for community and interpersonal connections.
Clearly every thoughtful, caring person should ask him- or herself what can be done to stem this tide of loneliness. I would submit as well that he or she should also ask modern psychologists, ancient sages, and certainly Catholic saints!
Five Catholic Approaches to Understanding, Enduring, and Conquering Loneliness
I’ll provide here the briefest of highlights of the approaches provided in the first five chapters of my new Catholic Guide to Loneliness (Sophia Institute Press, 2017).
- The Catholic Church is also “small c” catholic, or universal, recognizing truth whatever be its source. The research on treating loneliness has shown that even more effective than training in social skills or forming social contacts or support systems is training in adaptive thinking methods of cognitive therapy that address “maladaptive social cognition,” the negative ways of thinking and talking to oneself that can come from extended loneliness, making the lonely unhappy and less likely to reconnect with others.
- Development of Catholic virtues, both the moral cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, can better equip us to reach out and connect to God and neighbor in ways that diminish our own and their loneliness.
- Like the Desert Fathers, ancient Irish hermit saints, Russian spiritual startsy, and Church Doctors including Catherine of Sienna and John of Avila, we can purposefully embrace periods of solitude to grow in our relationship with God when alone that will enable us to more meaningfully reconnect with others when we venture back out into the world.
- Development of spiritual friendships centered in Christ, as expounded in the writings of Sts. Aelred of Rievaulx and Thomas Aquinas, can provide a most effective antidote to loneliness, even if friends most dear to us have been called to join Christ in heaven.
- Some theologians have said that Christ’s loneliness upon the cross outweighed even his physical agonies. Lessons derived from Christ’s loneliness, both his loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane as expounded in the writings of St. Thomas More, and upon the cross as expounded in the tradition of “Jesus’ last seven words on the cross” drawn from all four gospels can help us unite our sufferings from loneliness with His.
We might consider these suggested balms and remedies, as well as possible treatments of our own, as we grow in awareness of our lonely brothers and sisters in Christ and reach out to them to lighten the load of their loneliness.
 Juliann Holt-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, & David Stephenson, Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), 236. (In this statistical review of 70 prior studies with a cumulative total of 3,407, 134 mostly middle-aged and elderly adult participants, self-reported significant loneliness increased risk of death by 26%, which was not a statistically significant difference from the increased risk of death from social isolation (29%) or living alone (32%) at follow up an average of seven years later.)
 Miller McPherson, Lynn-Smith Lovin, Matthew E. Brashears, Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (June 353-375).
Of a range of 0 to 6 or more close confidants, the modal number is the number of confidants reported by the greatest number of respondents. In other words, by 2004 more people reported they had no close confidants than those who reported either 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6+ confidants, while 3 confidants was the most common response two decades before.
 Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century
(Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 37.