Spend any time reading about loneliness, and you’ll quickly hit upon a scary statistic: Since 1985 the share of people who have no one to confide in has tripled, to 25%. This statistic is common internet knowledge; it’s also wrong. The research paper it comes from — which also suggests that nearly half of all Americans feel isolated — has been refuted by multiple follow-up studies . As it turns out, structural flaws in the survey account for the seemingly massive jump. At least one of the original study’s authors concedes that the data is unreliable . But the statistic is so sexy that it stubbornly hangs on, used to explain (or try to explain) everything from why Millennials are the way they are to why our democracy is eroding .
Researchers aren’t actually sure if rates of loneliness are rising. Some surveys report increases in isolation in terms of absolute numbers — as the population ages, the thinking goes, more people are lonely, even if the percentage is unchanged. Some studies suggest that technology is making things worse, isolating us from our important relationships. One recent paper draws a clean line between Facebook use and well-being, showing that increased activity (more likes, status updates, and clicks on links) is associated with a decrease in self-reported mental health. Other studies see an upside to technology, finding that screens and social media help us create connections we couldn’t otherwise make.
Here’s what we do know: A significant number of people in the world are lonely, and loneliness is unhealthy for individuals and organizations. How unhealthy? One paper lists the following health effects: increased incidence of clinical depression and suicidal ideation, elevated blood pressure levels, increased levels of stress hormones, and compromised immune-system functioning. Loneliness has been also linked to Alzheimer’s disease, poor sleep, alcoholism, cancer, and premature death. (The stark finding from one study : “Rats who were isolated experienced increased incidences of breast cancer. The tumors were significantly larger than [those in] rats who were not isolated.”) Other work has shown that socially isolated breast-cancer survivors have a higher risk of recurrence, higher cancer-related mortality, and higher mortality overall than their less isolated counterparts. Two separate meta-analyses made international headlines by suggesting that loneliness and isolation rival smoking and obesity as public health threats.
Worse still, loneliness spreads through (literal, not digital) social networks. In other words, it’s contagious. “We detected an extraordinary pattern at the edge of the social network. On the periphery, people have fewer friends, which makes them lonely, but it also drives them to cut the few ties that they have left,” reads a study led by professor John T. Cacioppo. “But before they do, they tend to transmit the same feeling of loneliness to their remaining friends, starting the cycle anew. These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a thread that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater.”
All of this has implications for companies. It stands to reason that if lonely workers are less healthy, they’ll be less productive and less engaged. Many studies support this correlation, including one suggesting that one-third of all sick days results from mental health issues. Research also shows that employees who report higher well-being miss fewer days, get better evaluations, and are more productive.
A growing body of work outlines more-specific downsides. Several papers have documented a link between loneliness and lowered organizational commitment among hotel workers, school principals, medical workers, and others. (Interestingly, one study of migrant workers found no correlation between loneliness and commitment.) A study conducted at five companies in China showed a relationship between loneliness and lowered creativity.
The migrant workers notwithstanding, isolations’ negative effects are well established. So the question becomes: Are there ways to mitigate them? Can we not only stanch the health declines but actually improve health by making people less lonely? The answer seems to be yes. What psychologists call prosocial behavior is our best way to combat loneliness and isolation and their effects. A study of terminal cancer patients showed that patients who regularly interacted with other patients lived twice as long as those who didn’t. Researchers in China found that leaders who show compassion to their employees (through “leader-member exchange”) can mitigate the negative effects of loneliness and thereby boost creativity.
What researchers call everyday prosociality — basically, being nice to and interacting with others — proved to be a powerful antidote to isolation in a study of workers at Coca-Cola’s Madrid headquarters. Researchers divided subjects into “givers,” “receivers,” and “controls.” Givers were coached to perform five acts of kindness a day to designated receivers. The resulting prosocial acts benefited both groups in the short term (after weeks) and in the long term (after months). Givers reported feeling less depression and more satisfaction with their lives and jobs. Receivers were happier. And crucially, compared with controls, receivers were 278% as likely to engage in prosocial behaviors themselves. Loneliness may be contagious, but so, it seems, are prosocial acts.
Most of the research on loneliness and isolation has been in the context of colleagues, friends, and family. When we have close ties and interact with them regularly, we’re happier and less lonely. But those on the periphery of our lives have surprising power , according to research by Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia. People who engaged in simple prosocial behaviors with “weak ties” — coworkers they didn’t know well, people in their fitness class, and so on — reported less loneliness and isolation and a higher level of happiness and well-being than people who avoided unnecessary conversation.
Sandstrom and Dunn examined loneliness through a lens familiar to any business: efficiency. In a simple study they intercepted people going into a coffee shop, asking half to make a social connection with the barista — in other words, to treat a stranger as a weak tie in their social network. They asked the other half to complete their transaction as efficiently as possible. The first group reported higher well-being and satisfaction with their visit.
Juliana Schroeder of UC Berkeley reinforced Sandstrom and Dunn’s finding that prosocial behavior not only combats loneliness but also makes people happier with their environment. She found that encouraging people waiting in line at an amusement park to be social with nearby strangers made them feel that their wait was shorter and led them to rate the experience higher. The simple intervention increased their enjoyment of the overall experience.
In his book Someone To Talk To, Harvard professor Mario Small notes that although many interactions with weak ties are planned — think of going to the doctor or taking your car to the mechanic — a surprising number arise spontaneously or from convenience (someone was nearby at the time). Small found that we confide in these weak ties more than we think we do — in fact, nearly half of our confiding is done with weak ties. He concludes that making these connections is more beneficial than it may seem.
It all sounds so easy: Be social. Talk to strangers. So why are so many of us lonely? Why can’t we all just smile at one another, strike up conversations with colleagues and friends, and show compassion to our subordinates?
Professors Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder tackle this issue in their paper “ Mistakenly Seeking Solitude ,” noting that “connecting with others increases happiness, but strangers in close proximity routinely ignore each other.” According to their study of commuters on trains and buses, two things keep us from initiating interactions with strangers: We don’t want to break the ice, either because we fear of being rejected or because we underestimate others’ desire for social connection (“They don’t want to be bothered”). And we worry that if we do engage, we won’t be able to end the interaction. But the study also showed that overcoming these barriers has undeniably positive repercussions. “Those who misunderstand the consequences of social interactions may not, in at least some contexts, be social enough for their own well-being,” the researchers write. “Human beings are social animals.”
The idea that human beings are social animals comes through in much of the loneliness research. One paper demonstrates it particularly well. The title is fairly academic: “Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction.” But the subtitle gets at the nut of it: “Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds.” In the paper, Nichloas Epley, Scott Akalis, Adam Waytz, and John Cacioppo painstakingly demonstrate that in the absence of human connection, we create a facsimile with whatever is available. We can’t help it. We humanize gadgets (think of Wilson, the volleyball in the movie Cast Away), gods (socially disconnected people tend to have more faith in deities and are more apt to believe in ghosts), and greyhounds (lonely people speak of their pets in terms that describe human rather than animal behaviors). The takeaway: There’s something almost primal about our need to be connected, so it’s no wonder our bodies respond badly to isolation. Loneliness is as elemental as hunger, thirst, and love. The Big Idea
About the author: Scott Berinato is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations (2016).
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