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Culture and technology
20 April 2012

The economic cost of loneliness

It’s lonely at the top.

Well, actually it isn’t. A successful politician is hardly ever alone. Perhaps that’s why loneliness – the secret sorrow of millions of people – barely figures as a political issue.

However, it is a topic of academic study – the results of which are reported on by Stephen Marche in this month's Atlantic:

  •  “…various studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history. A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.”

Before dismissing loneliness as a private matter, we should be aware of its very public consequences:

  • “Being lonely is extremely bad for your health. If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to be put in a geriatric home at an earlier age than a similar person who isn’t lonely. You’re less likely to exercise… more likely to be obese… more likely to have hormonal imbalances… greater risk of inflammation… more likely to be depressed, to sleep badly, and to suffer dementia and general cognitive decline.”

But perhaps the most important consequence that Marche identifies is the replacement of trusted confidants – increasingly absent from our lives – with an army of “psychic servants”:

  • “ …in the late ’40s, the United States was home to 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 nonclinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental-health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. The majority of patients in therapy do not warrant a psychiatric diagnosis.”

What friendship used to do for free is now a drain upon the economy and, in large part, upon the public purse. So loneliness matters to us all – not just those locked in its cold embrace.


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