The Cause and Cure of Loneliness
Review of ‘The Loneliness Epidemic’ by Susan Mettes
America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Data from nations similar to the U.S. suggest that the epidemic is actually a global problem. And while it would be nice to blame loneliness on social restrictions related to COVID, the uptick in loneliness both here and abroad predates that pandemic.
In The Loneliness Epidemic, Susan Mettes marshals data from Barna Group, as well as other studies of the topic, to help “Christian leaders understand the landscape of loneliness, how to encourage others, and how to lead a community that deals with the threat and the fact of loneliness.”
Loneliness is often misunderstood. It is neither solitude nor social isolation. A person can be alone without feeling lonely, in other words. By the same token, however, a person can feel lonely even though they’re in the middle of crowd. That’s because loneliness, as Mettes defines it, is “the distress someone feels when their social connections don’t meet their need for emotional intimacy.”
How many Americans experience this distress? “One-third (33%) of US adults felt lonely at least every day in the winter of 2020, and a majority had felt lonely in the past week,” writes Mettes, drawing on Barna survey data. “About one in seven (14%) Americans indicated they felt lonely all the time.”
“One-third (33%) of US adults felt lonely at least every day in the winter of 2020, and a majority had felt lonely in the past week."
Loneliness is an “intense but not excruciating” experience for most lonely Americans. Approximately 10% of these people are “suffering deeply,” however, saying their pain is “unbearable.” One-in-ten doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that it equals 10 million adults, “about the same as the number of Americans employed as educators,” Mettes points out.
Mettes works hard to dispel a number of myths about loneliness.
- “Older adults are the loneliest.”
- “People who have found true love aren’t lonely.”
- “Poor social skills are at the root of loneliness.”
- “People are lonely because they spend too much time on social media.”
- “Going to church makes people less lonely.”
- “When people are paying you attention, you won’t feel lonely.”
There is an element of truth in each of these myths, but the reality of loneliness is more complex than these oversimplifications.
Whatever the precise causes of loneliness, Mettes believes that three elements contribute to its cure in most people: belonging, closeness, and expectations. Belonging has to do with “strong, stable interpersonal relationships.” Closeness pertains to “physical closeness,” especially, and is best seen through the practices of hospitality, appropriate physical touch, and neighborliness. And expectations regard the norms that govern our relationships.
“Belonging and closeness boost our defenses against loneliness with higher-quality relationships,” Mettes writes. “But by adjusting our expectations, we can hope for realistic interactions, reducing the demand side of relationships that can otherwise lead to loneliness.”
I’ve highlighted the social science aspects of The Loneliness Epidemic, but Mettes does a good job integrating the science with Scripture. That integration bears fruit in an appendix titled, “What the Bible Says About Loneliness.” Enterprising pastors might use it as the outline of a sermon series on the topic.
I recommend The Loneliness Epidemic to Christian leaders, whether in churches, parachurch ministries, or secular professions. It clearly defines the nature and scope of an urgent problem and outlines practices leaders can realistically implement. “Loneliness is not a problem that can be solved by anything short of love,” Mettes writes.
Isn’t love the responsibility of every Christian (Matthew 22:37–40)? If so, then every Christian is a potential solution to at least someone’s loneliness.
Susan Mettes, The Loneliness Epidemic: Why So Many of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021).