Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey

Section 1: Characteristics and Experiences of Those Who Report Often Feeling Lonely or Socially Isolated

Prevalence of Loneliness and Social Isolation

Consequences of loneliness: Many Americans who always or often feel lonely say it affects their physical and mental health, relationships and work, per @KaiserFamFound survey w/@Economist

More than a fifth of adults in the U.S. (22 percent) and the U.K. (23 percent) say they often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others, about twice the share in Japan (nine percent), referred to here as those reporting loneliness or social isolation. Not everyone experiences loneliness and social isolation the same way and some do not see it as a problem for them; however, most of those reporting loneliness across the U.S., the U.K., and Japan do. About one in twenty across countries say their loneliness is a “major” problem for them. In the U.S. and the U.K. there are more saying it is a minor problem or not really a problem for them, whereas in Japan, most people who report feeling lonely say it is a major problem for them.

Figure 1: Reports of Loneliness and Social Isolation Higher in U.S. and U.K. Than in Japan

There are considerable differences in the share reporting loneliness or social isolation across a number of different demographics and life circumstances. The groups of people who are most likely to report being lonely or socially isolated include people who say they have few confidants, have mental health conditions, have a debilitating chronic illness or disability, are lower income, and are single, divorced, widowed, or separated. Each of these is discussed in more depth throughout this section.

Figure 2: Reports of Loneliness and Social Isolation Highest Among Those with Few Confidants, Physical and Mental Conditions

Personal Characteristics of Adults Reporting Loneliness

Looked at another way, comparing the demographic profiles of those who report loneliness and those who do not can provide insights into the circumstances of those experiencing loneliness. For example, while loneliness is often thought of as a problem mainly affecting the elderly, majorities of people reporting loneliness across countries are younger than 50. In addition, those who report loneliness or social isolation are more likely than others to report lower incomes and not being married.

Table 1: Demographics of those reporting loneliness
  United States United Kingdom Japan
  Lonely Not Lonely Lonely Not Lonely Lonely Not Lonely
Age
18-49 NET 59% 52% 56% 55% 57% 42%
18-29 24 21 25 21 19 12
30-49 35 31 30 34 37 30
50+ NET 41 48 44 45 43 58
50-64 25 26 19 23 23 23
65+ 16 21 25 22 21 36
Gender
Male 44 50 45 50 54 51
Female 56 50 55 50 46 49
Income
Lower Income 58 31 49 29 47 30
Middle Income 21 34 18 21 29 31
Higher income 11 25 10 28 11 26
Education
High school or less/secondary or less 47 37 35 30 63 62
Some college/ post-secondary/junior college 35 30 41 39 14 15
College/university or more 17 33 21 31 19 20
Employment status
Employed full time 33 49 25 43 35 46
Employed part time 13 15 14 15 16 14
Unemployed (NET) 14 4 14 5 22 11
Other (NET) 40 31 47 36 25 29
Marital status
Single, that is never married 32 23 32 23 42 19
Single, living with a partner 7 10 7 14 2 2
Married 22 48 22 43 30 60
Divorced/Separated 26 10 23 11 14 8
Widowed 11 7 14 8 12 10

Reports of physical and mental health conditions are much more common among those experiencing loneliness than others. For example, across the three countries, people reporting loneliness are at least two times as likely as others to report having a debilitating disability or chronic disease that keeps them from fully participating in daily activities or to say they have been told by a medical professional that they have a serious mental health condition. And, while loneliness and social isolation may be perceived to be more often associated with mental health issues, those experiencing loneliness are almost as likely to report debilitating disabilities or chronic diseases as they are to report having a serious mental health condition.

Figure 3: Those Reporting Loneliness Are Much More Likely to Report Poor Mental and Physical Health

Reported Causes of Loneliness and Negative Life Events

Loneliness appears to occur in parallel with reports of real life problems and circumstances. Across countries, about six in ten say there is a specific cause of their loneliness, but when asked what the specific cause is, the responses vary considerably. More than one in ten say the death of a significant other, parent, or other person caused their feelings of loneliness, while others say physical health problems (12 percent in U.S., eight percent in the U.K. and in Japan). Fewer say things like divorce, being away from family, or mental health problems are the specific causes of loneliness.

Figure 4: Death of Loved One, Health Problems Top Reasons for Loneliness Among U.S., U.K., Japan

Some negative life events may exacerbate or put people at risk for feelings of loneliness and the findings show that loneliness is associated with real life challenges. For example, compared to others, people who report feeling lonely are much more likely to say they have experienced a negative change in financial status, a change in living situation, a serious injury or illness personally, or loss of a job in the past two years.

Table 2: Reports of Negative Life Events
United States United Kingdom Japan
Percent who say that in the past two years, they have experienced … Lonely Not Lonely Lonely Not Lonely Lonely Not Lonely
The death of a close family member or friend 59% 50% 53% 45% 34% 36%
A change in living situation 46 34 42 29 38 28
A negative change in financial status 47 22 41 22 39 18
A serious illness or injury in their family 47 42 39 32 21 19
A serious illness or injury themselves 37 18 36 18 28 14
A loss of a job 27 16 17 11 28 9
A death of a spouse or partner 11 4 12 5 5 4
Marital separation or divorce 12 4 11 2 3 2
Yes to any of the above 91 81 89 75 79 67

Roughly half of those in the U.S. and the U.K. and two-thirds of those in Japan say they have felt lonely or isolated from those around them for at least three years. In Japan, more than a third (35 percent) 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).

Figure 5: One-Third of People In Japan Say They Have Experienced Loneliness for More Than 10 Years

Impacts of Loneliness and Social Isolation

Substantial shares across the three countries report that loneliness has had a negative impact on their lives. In Japan, majorities say loneliness has had a negative impact on their mental health (75 percent), physical health (63 percent), and personal relationships (59 percent), and nearly half say it’s had a negative impact on their ability to do their job (47 percent). In the U.S. and U.K., many say their loneliness has had a negative impact on their mental health (58 percent and 60 percent, respectively) and about half say it’s had a negative impact on their personal relationships (49 percent and 55 percent) and their physical health (55 percent and 49 percent). In terms of their ability to do their job, about a third in the U.S. and the U.K. say their loneliness has had a negative impact.

Figure 6: Across Countries, Many Say Loneliness Has Had a Negative Impact on Relationships, Mental and Physical Health

Likely stemming in part from the relatively high reports of mental health issues and negative mental health impacts of loneliness, about three in ten people experiencing loneliness in each country say it has led them to think about harming themselves – 31 percent in U.S., 30 percent in U.K., and 33 percent in Japan. Fewer say it has led them to think about committing a violent act – 15 percent in the U.S., 9 percent in the U.K., and 17 percent in Japan.

Figure 7: Three in Ten of Those Reporting Loneliness or Social Isolation Say It Has Led Them to Think About Self-Harm

In addition to the specific impacts of loneliness, those reporting loneliness or isolation are much more likely to express general dissatisfaction with a number of different life domains, particularly when it comes to personal finances or employment, but also in housing and family life.

Figure 8: Those Experiencing Loneliness Are Much More Likely To Report Being Dissatisfied In a Number of Life Domains

Social Interactions and Loneliness

Across countries, people experiencing loneliness are much more likely than others to say they have “just a few” or “no” people nearby they can rely on for help or support.

Figure 9: Large Majorities of Those Reporting Loneliness or Social Isolation Say They Have Few People They Can Rely On

Specifically when it comes to the number of confidants people have with whom they can discuss personal matters, those who report feelings of loneliness and social isolation report having fewer confidants than others. For example, in the U.K., 11 percent of adults who report feeling lonely or socially isolated say they have no one with whom they can discuss things that are personally important to them and another 33 percent say they have one or two confidants, compared with 1 and 13 percent for others in the U.K.

Figure 10: Adults Reporting Loneliness Report Fewer Confidants Than Others

And, more generally, across the three countries, those reporting loneliness are more likely to be dissatisfied with the number of meaningful connections they have with neighbors, family members and friends.

Figure 11: Those Reporting Loneliness Express Dissatisfaction with the Number of Meaningful Personal Connections They Have

While some experiencing loneliness may be dissatisfied with the number of meaningful connections they have or have few confidants, many (roughly half or more) in the U.S. and the U.K. report talking to family or friends at least a few times a week either in person or over the phone. In Japan, it appears to be much less common to talk with family members frequently and roughly a fifth of those experiencing loneliness say they are in contact with family members in person or over the phone at least a few times a week. In each country, those who are lonely generally report communicating with friends and family less frequently than those who don’t report loneliness.

Table 3: Frequency of Communication With Family and Friends
  United States United Kingdom Japan
  Lonely Not Lonely Lonely Not lonely Lonely Not lonely
Talk to family members at least a few times a week…
…in person 48% 59% 59% 69% 17% 27%
…over the phone 57 71 66 75 19 28
…through email, text, or social media 46 62 50 62 20 28
Talk to friends at least a few times a week…
…in person 57 74 60 73 25 27
…over the phone 57 62 48 58 13 23
…through email, text, or social media 61 66 54 66 34 34

Coping with Loneliness

There are a number of different ways people may cope with loneliness, some more positive than others. Across countries, the most commonly reported coping mechanisms were distracting oneself with television, or computer or video games and reliving memories from the past, with about seven in ten or more saying they almost always or sometimes do these things when they feel lonely. Majorities report talking to a friend or relative, browsing the internet or social media sites or exercising. On the more negative side, across countries, four in ten say they overeat at least sometimes when feeling lonely, a third or more say they at least sometimes smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products when feeling lonely, and two in ten say they at least sometimes abuse alcohol or drugs.

Figure 12: People Use a Variety of Coping Mechanisms to Deal with Loneliness and Social Isolation

Across countries, majorities say they have talked to someone about their feelings of loneliness, but still others say they haven’t talked to anyone about it. Most commonly, they report talking to a close friend or family member, but some report talking to a doctor or other health professional, a mental health professional, or a religious or spiritual advisor.

Figure 13: Many Say They Have Talked with Someone about Feeling Lonely, Most Often A Close Friend or Family Member

Introduction Section 2: The Public’s Perceptions of Loneliness and Social Isolation