Guest Column: Who Is Most Likely to Experience Loneliness and How Can Churches Help?
Susan Mettes is an associate editor at Christianity Today magazine, as well as a researcher and an author. Her recent book, The Loneliness Epidemic: Why So Many of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond explores the causes of loneliness and how people can better minister to those facing loneliness.
This blog represents her opinions, interwoven with recent Barna data featured in her book. For more data on rates of loneliness across the U.S., check out this recent Barna article.
In the course of writing a book about loneliness, I’ve discovered that many people have a particular profile of a lonely person in mind—a person who is often elderly, unattractive or isolated. But the data doesn’t really bear out that image.
So, who is lonely in America today? While loneliness is spread across all demographics, there are two big groups of U.S. adults who are more likely to experience loneliness. Let’s explore the findings below.
The fact of the matter is that, among U.S. adults, the younger you are, the more likely you are to experience loneliness. This isn’t true in every country, but in America, before the pandemic struck, only one in three Boomers (36%) had felt lonely at least once in the previous week, while well over half of Gen X (57%) and Millennials (68%) said the same.
Constant loneliness also affected young people more; one in five Millennials (22%), 15 percent of Gen X and 4 percent of Boomers said they were lonely all the time the previous week. Nearly half of Millennials (46%) had felt lonely for at least some of each day, while only a third of Gen X (33%) and 19 percent of Boomers said the same.
The subgroup who had felt lonely at least once during the previous week was also asked to rate the pain of their loneliness on a sliding scale from “barely noticeable” to “unbearable.” Here, too, there was a difference according to age. The younger the adult, the more painful they were likely to find their loneliness.
In summary, young Americans are less likely to find that their relationships meet their hopes and are more likely to experience that as painful. Of course, that’s not to say no older Americans experience loneliness or that it isn’t painful for them. And when, as happens more frequently in older age, someone is bereaved or becomes disabled, loneliness is in fact likelier.
While many Rom-Com movies end not with a wedding but with a couple re-uniting to go on dating, there’s a big piece they’re missing. Marriage—much more than having found a romantic match—makes a big, positive difference in loneliness.
In this study, while a majority of married adults (56%) hadn’t experienced loneliness in the previous week, only 38 percent of single adults said the same. A quarter of single adults (24%) had felt lonely at least one day of the week, and 20 percent had felt lonely for at least some of each day. A notable 17 percent reported feeling lonely all the time.
So, there was a 10 percentage point gap between married and single Americans who felt lonely on a daily basis—but the pandemic changed that.
Once most U.S. adults said they were socially distancing in the spring of 2020, married Americans said they felt lonely less frequently, while single adults reported about the same frequencies. That more than doubled the gap, with a 25 percentage point difference between the 63 percent of married people who hadn’t felt lonely and the 38 percent of singles who hadn’t.
As the pandemic changed life, daily or constant loneliness became something that a reduced 22 percent of married adults and a steady 39 percent of single people said they experienced, making loneliness disproportionately a problem for single adults.
Singleness has a lot to do with loneliness in our society. With the understanding that many more adults in the next generations won’t get married, leaders should consider how to foster a community that consists of far more than programs or singles get-togethers. Also, when a well-matched couple has found each other, churches and pastors should do what they can to remove barriers to marriage—whether by reducing the high price of a wedding or the pressure to first settle on a vocation and become financially stable.
Perceptions of Life
While not fitting into demographic categories, dramatic differences in loneliness were also noted according to how people perceived their lives. Perceptions of too little privacy and of insecurity correlate to a great degree with frequent loneliness.
Those who said they lacked privacy were far more likely to also report loneliness. More than half of those who said they were lonely all the time (51%) also said they lacked privacy all the time. The pattern holds to the opposite perceptions; three in five of those who hadn’t felt lonely in the previous week (61%) also said they hadn’t lacked privacy that week.
This, as well as other research on loneliness, shows that the root of the problem isn’t really whether people are alone. Solitude, and the privacy that goes with it, can be a big part of the life of someone who doesn’t feel lonely often.
After most adults were socially distancing in the spring of 2020, Barna gathered data on insecurity and loneliness. There is a very strong link there, as well. Of those who had been lonely all the time, 40 percent said they’d also been insecure all the time. Another 30 percent said they’d been insecure for part of each day. Of the group who said they hadn’t been lonely the previous week, 81 percent said they had not felt insecure, either.
People’s perceptions of their levels of boredom, privacy and security are ultimately not under the control of others. However, those of us who are concerned about loneliness should understand that lonely people often feel they are under too much scrutiny or that their lives and relationships aren’t on solid ground.
How to counter these problems? To all of them, one answer is real friendship. We can get there in many ways. For example, we can display hospitality on an ordinary basis, investing time getting to know people regardless of whether they are old, young, single or married. We can explicitly promote deep friendships outside of marriage and family. We should avoid making projects of people in lonelier groups or subjecting them to uninvited scrutiny, but we should also listen when people are ready to reveal something.