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
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.
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.
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|
|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|
|Employed full time||33||49||25||43||35||46|
|Employed part time||13||15||14||15||16||14|
|Single, that is never married||32||23||32||23||42||19|
|Single, living with a partner||7||10||7||14||2||2|
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…|
|…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…|
|…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.
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.