The Internet may sound like the perfect way to stay connected with old friends — and to make new ones — but Facebook is no substitute for face time. Although our survey found no evidence that social media are diminishing social connections, the results suggest that the Internet can make loneliness worse. Lonely respondents were more likely to agree with the statement "I have fewer deep connections now that I keep in touch with people using the Internet." Says loneliness expert Cacioppo: "Using social networking as a substitute for human contact can be like eating celery when you're hungry. It makes you feel better for a short while, but it isn't real nourishment, so you get hungrier in the long run."
This explains why Franklin Crawford spends his late nights roaming grocery aisles. He worked for 20 years as a reporter in newsrooms but now works from home, where he lives alone. "I miss that office because of the warm bodies, not the work," he says. "Despite my loneliness, I know I'm an outgoing person. But the computer isolates me. When I communicate without in-the-flesh contact, I fail to connect; in the meantime, though, I pretend it works. The problem with the meantime is that it gets to be all the time."
Loneliness is an equal-opportunity affliction. Men and women are about equally likely to be lonely. White, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are all about equally lonely. Geographic regions are all within a few percentage points of the national average. Nor does education make much of a difference, though low-income respondents (those earning less than $25,000 per year) were more likely to be lonely than those in the high-income bracket (more than $75,000 per year).
Helping others helps you. More than 40 percent of people who did not volunteer their time in the past 12 months reported being lonely, compared with 28 percent who did volunteer.
Shocking no one, married people are less lonely than those who are divorced, separated, or never married. But that wedding band doesn't have magical powers: 29 percent of married people reported being lonely. "There's nothing worse than being half of a couple that's not getting along," says Ironside, the London Independent advice columnist. "There are lots of difficult things about living alone, but at least no one is actively ignoring you."
Not surprisingly, 62 percent of respondents who said they are depressed also reported being lonely; depression and loneliness often appear together, and are often mistaken for each other, though they are two distinct mental states. Depression is feeling sad, lethargic, apathetic, and listless; loneliness is feeling alienated, threatened, hostile, and desperate. "A person can be depressed but not lonely if a loving friend or family member is there to comfort and support them," says Cacioppo. "You can also be in a reasonably good mood about life in general but still feel socially isolated, if you don't know and trust the people around you."
Consider the case of Emily White. She was a successful lawyer who lived alone and often worked alone; after losing her father to cancer in 2001, she retreated to a solitary routine of home and office that went on for years and deepened into chronic loneliness. "It was maddening," she says. "My friends were becoming parents and partners, and I felt left behind. I tried to socialize, but no matter what I did, I couldn't find a sense of connection. I told myself the feeling would lift, but it didn't. It became a constant, solid presence in my life."
White, 40, who wrote about her experiences in the memoir Lonely, says she always knew she was lonely and not depressed. "The strange thing about my loneliness was that it didn't darken my view of life as a whole. I always had this sense that if I could just connect with someone, my life would actually be pretty good."
Perhaps the scariest thing about loneliness is its links to serious medical problems. More than half of the respondents who reported being in poor health were lonely, compared with one-quarter who reported being in excellent health. And though there's no way to establish a direct cause and effect from our findings, the percentages of the lonely among those diagnosed with obesity (43 percent), sleep disorders (45 percent), chronic pain (47 percent), and anxiety (56 percent) were considerably higher than the 35 percent who are lonely overall. Could loneliness be contributing to these conditions? "Studies have shown that people sleep more poorly, exercise less, eat more fats and sugars, and are more anxious when they feel lonely than when they are not," says Cacioppo. "In addition, the research has shown that illness and disability can leave people more isolated and lonely."
But amid these disturbing statistics emerged one heartening surprise: Respondents who had been diagnosed with cancer had the lowest rate of loneliness — just 24 percent. A puzzling percentage, until you talk to a cancer survivor such as Bob Riter, 54, acting executive director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca, New York. "Cancer is the great equalizer," he says. "It is a life-or-death situation that throws people together regardless of their backgrounds. You form bonds similar to the bonds soldiers have." Riter, who underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, has been cancer free for 14 years. But he still attends a weekly breakfast group where college professors, construction workers, and firefighters gather as friends united by the shared experience of fighting cancer. "All those sympathetic ears make it hard to stay lonely," Riter says.
The key takeaway from our survey? Social connections are critical when it comes to warding off loneliness. "We've known for a long time that people who do not feel connected to something outside themselves feel a malaise, as if there's a hole in their lives," says psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds. This may account for the fact that only 27 percent of the people who say they are "very religious or spiritual" are lonely, compared with 43 percent who report they aren't religious at all. At the same time, 44 percent of respondents who never attend religious services reported feeling lonely, compared with 30 percent who attend services once a month or more.