Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey
In recent years, the issue of social isolation and loneliness has garnered increased attention from researchers, policymakers, and the public as societies age, the use of technology increases, and concerns about the impact of loneliness on health grow. To understand more about how people view the issue of loneliness and social isolation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, in partnership with The Economist, conducted a cross-country survey of adults in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. The survey included additional interviews with individuals who report always or often feeling lonely, left out, isolated or that they lack companionship to better understand the personal characteristics and life circumstances associated with these feelings, the reported causes of loneliness, and how people are coping.
Some of the key findings from the survey across all three countries are as follows.
- More than two in ten report loneliness or social isolation in the U.K. and the U.S., double the share in Japan. More than a fifth of adults in the United States (22 percent) and the United Kingdom (23 percent) as well as one in ten adults (nine percent) in Japan say they often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others, and many of them say their loneliness has had a negative impact on various aspects of their life. For example, across countries, about half or more reporting loneliness say it has had a negative impact on their personal relationships or their physical health. While loneliness is often thought of as a problem mainly affecting the elderly, the majority of people reporting loneliness in each country are under age 50. They’re also much more likely to be single or divorced than others.
- Loneliness appears to occur in parallel with reports of real life problems and circumstances. Across the three countries, people reporting loneliness are more likely to report being down and out physically, mentally, and financially. People experiencing loneliness disproportionately report lower incomes and having a debilitating health condition or mental health conditions. About six in ten say there is a specific cause of their loneliness, and, compared to those who are not lonely, they more often report being dissatisfied with their personal financial situation. They are also more likely to report experiencing negative life events in the past two years, such as a negative change in financial status or a serious illness or injury. Three in ten say their loneliness has led them to think about harming themselves.
- Those reporting loneliness appear to lack meaningful connections with others. Those reporting loneliness in each country report having fewer confidants than others and two-thirds or more say they have just a few or no relatives or friends living nearby who they can rely on for support. While individuals who report loneliness are more likely to express dissatisfaction with the number of meaningful connections they have with family, friends and neighbors, in the U.K. and the U.S., many still report talking to family and friends frequently by phone or in person. In Japan, reports of communication with family and friends are much less frequent, regardless of whether someone reports loneliness.
- Among the public at large, across countries, many have heard of the issue but views vary on the reasons for loneliness and who is responsible for helping to reduce it. Across the U.S., the U.K. and Japan, majorities say they have heard at least something about the issues of loneliness and social isolation in their country. In the U.S., the public is divided as to whether loneliness and social isolation are more of a public health problem or more of an individual problem (47 percent vs. 45 percent), and a large majority (83 percent) see individuals and families themselves playing a major role in helping to reduce loneliness and social isolation in society today and fewer see a major role for government (27 percent). In contrast, residents of the U.K. and Japan are more likely to see the issue as a public health problem than an individual issue (66 percent vs. 27 percent in the U.K. and 52 percent vs. 41 percent in Japan). And, while large majorities in the U.K. and Japan also think individuals and families should play a major role in stemming the problem, six in ten also see a major role for government, unlike in the U.S. A majority of people in the U.K. say “cuts in government social programs” is a major reason why people there are lonely or socially isolated, compared to minorities in the U.S. and Japan.
- Some are critical of the role technology plays in loneliness and isolation, but some see social media as an opportunity for connection. Many in the U.S. (58 percent) and U.K. (50 percent) view the increased use of technology as a major reason why people are lonely or socially isolated, whereas fewer people in Japan say the same (26 percent). Across countries, more say technology in general has made it harder to spend time with friends and family in person than say it has made it easier. However, when it comes to social media specifically, in each country, more say that they think their ability to connect with others in a meaningful way is strengthened by social media rather than weakened. But, for those experiencing loneliness or social isolation personally in the U.K. and the U.S., they are divided as to whether they think social media makes their feelings of loneliness better or worse. In addition, people who report being socially isolated or lonely in each country are not more likely than their peers to report using social media.
- Despite fewer people in Japan reporting loneliness, reports of the severity of the experience are worse. Half of those experiencing loneliness in Japan (or 5 percent of residents of Japan overall) say it is a major problem for them, compared to a fifth of those experiencing loneliness in the U.S. and the U.K. In Japan, more than a third (35 percent) of those who self-identify as lonely say they have felt isolated or lonely for more than 10 years, compared to a fifth of those in the U.S. (22 percent) or the U.K. (20 percent). Half of those reporting loneliness in Japan report dissatisfaction with their family life or employment situation and two thirds say the same about their financial situation. Higher shares in Japan than in the U.S. or U.K. say their loneliness has had a negative impact on their job and their mental health. Many people reporting loneliness in Japan are younger — nearly six in ten are less than 50 years old, compared to 42 percent who don’t report loneliness. People in Japan experiencing loneliness are also much more likely to be dissatisfied with the number of meaningful connections they have with friends. More generally, large majorities in Japan think the Japanese concepts of Hikikomori and Kodokishi are serious problems.