31% of Americans experience loneliness daily; 1 in 5 practicing Christians say the same: study

Unsplash/Eric Ward
Unsplash/Eric Ward

Loneliness is being experienced by 31% of U.S. adults daily and Christians aren’t doing much better, new research from the Barna Group suggests.

Data for the research done in partnership with behavioral scientist Susan Mettes and the evangelical polling firm Barna was collected through online surveys from 1,003 U.S. adults from Feb. 18 to March 2, 2020, and 1,000 U.S. adults from April 28 to May 5, 2020.

The data is highlighted in Mettes’ new book, The Loneliness Epidemic, and examines rates of loneliness, both across the nation and within the Church. Described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact,” loneliness is linked to poorer health outcomes.

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“In [this] academic research, loneliness is the distress someone feels when their social connections don’t meet their need for emotional intimacy,” Mettes explains. “It’s lack, it’s disappointment, it’s something we are conscious of, even when we don’t call it loneliness. Loneliness is a thirst that drives us to seek companionship — or, perhaps better, fellowship. Without fellowship, we go on needing others and seeking relief for that need.”

The study found that three in 10 U.S. adults experience loneliness at least once daily, and such a feeling usually comes with pain.

For U.S. adults who experienced loneliness at least once within the past week, more than 40% of that group said the feelings of loneliness ranged from intense to unbearable.

“These numbers give us a snapshot of loneliness. What they don’t reveal is for whom loneliness is a long-term, chronic condition. The chronic version of loneliness is more damaging,” Mettes stated. “Those whose loneliness is constant and chronic have likely experienced how loneliness can chip away at health and quality of life.”

A 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says seniors experiencing social isolation or loneliness may face a higher risk of mortality, heart disease and depression.

“Loneliness and social isolation aren’t just social issues — they can also affect a person’s physical and mental health, and the fabric of communities,” Dan Blazer, a professor of community and family medicine at Duke University who chaired the commission that published the report, said in a statement.

“Addressing social isolation and loneliness is often the entry point for meeting seniors’ other social needs — like food, housing, and transportation.”

A survey conducted by researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education project Making Caring Common found that 36% of about 950 respondents in the national poll conducted in late October 2020 reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the prior four weeks.

Some 61% of respondents aged 18-25 reported substantial degrees of loneliness.

“These levels of loneliness are heartbreaking. We have big holes in our social fabric,” said the report’s lead author and Making Caring Common faculty director Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School. 

“We need to mobilize coherently and strategically to assure that far fewer Americans are stranded and disconnected.”

Barna compared the rate of loneliness in the Church with the rate of loneliness in the general population and found little difference.

U.S. churchgoers reported similar levels of loneliness as their non-churchgoing peers, with both groups closely aligned with the average Barna found.

“Looking at committed faith practice, practicing Christians — those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month — do show a slight decrease in how often they feel lonely, when compared to churched adults and the general population,” Barna noted. “However, a notable one in five (20%) still feels lonely at least once each day, with 10 percent being lonely all the time.”

The Barna study suggests that churchgoers who experience loneliness are more likely than non-churchgoing adults to describe more severe feelings of loneliness, while practicing Christians reported less painful feelings of loneliness.

When it comes to painful feelings associated with loneliness, 48% of churchgoers who experienced loneliness at least once in the past week said they had more severe feelings of loneliness compared to 39% of non-churchgoing adults who said the same. Some 35% of practicing Christians had similar feelings.

Researchers also found that practicing Christians were more likely than other groups to stigmatize loneliness as “always” bad, indicating less willingness to discuss the issue in a church context.

“There is a real danger of letting positive psychology hijack the Church’s real purpose,” Mettes said. “It is because of what the Christian faith teaches that Christians do so many things that are good for loneliness (i.e. group singing, community service, meeting in person). But confronting loneliness isn’t an ultimate goal. In the taxonomy of church priorities, it is a subcategory of loving your neighbor.”

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