This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2023

All the lonely people

The discourse has moved on since the lockdowns lifted, but Canada’s loneliness epidemic remains

Yasmin Afshar

An illustration of a woman wearing yellow surrounded by people silhouetted in turquoise looking very lonely.

Illustration by Juliette Vermeersch

“I’ve been worried about you.”

I heard this phrase often in the spring of 2020, when my move into a place of my own coincided with Ontario’s first round of social distancing and lockdowns. My world shrunk to 500 square feet, bound by the drafty walls of a second-floor studio in Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood. I owned one pot, three forks, and a bed made from reclaimed barn wood that took up half my apartment. I woke up to birdsong, which grew louder in the silent streets of that time. By nightfall, the only voices I heard were those of neighbours seeping through the walls and of BoJack Horseman voicing thoughts of self-loathing.

I was alone, yes. But I was living. Settling in, for what felt like the first time. As someone who had lived with chronic feelings of loneliness, I found a sense of relief during the pandemic. Permission to be with my loneliness, without the pressure to escape it. I also felt a sense of belonging, as tweets, news headlines, and political statements were increasingly filled with the language of loneliness, signaling that I was no longer the only lonely one.

Not to suggest that I ever was. The loneliness epidemic was already upon us before COVID-19 sent us into isolation. Recognized as an emerging public health crisis in the U.S. since 2017, according to Vivek H. Murthy, the former Surgeon General of the United States, loneliness is something communities around the globe have been grappling with for years.

“It’s been a long time of people feeling this way,” says Jaylin Bradbury, a social worker and therapist who has worked in both community and academic mental health settings over the past 10 years. Bradbury confirms that the feelings of belonging I felt early in the pandemic made sense, as there was this universal experience of loneliness that helped validate what chronically lonely people like myself had been feeling in a more individualized way for years.

Today, according to a 2021 global survey by Ipsos, it’s estimated that a third of us are lonely.

In Canada, the numbers increase. While a pre-pandemic study found that one in five Canadians identified as being lonely, a 2022 Statistics Canada survey shows close to half of us now claim to experience loneliness sometimes, often, or always. And 2022 research by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health notes that we are getting lonelier.

Although loneliness is reported at higher levels among those aged between 15 and 24, urban dwellers, and folks who fall outside of the straight, cisgendered, abled-bodied, white male demographic, it is clear from the latest Statistics Canada findings on loneliness across sociodemographic characteristics that none of us are immune. A 2009 study by John T. Cacioppo—the co-founder of the field of social neuroscience—observes proof of the transmission of loneliness across three degrees of separation, between family and friends. In other words, just like COVID-19—a contagion we’ve been fighting collectively—the chronic feeling of being on the outside can also be passed on from one person to another, with all the associated health impacts.

In his book Together, Murthy explains that feeling lonely increases one’s risk of developing heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, or a stroke, as well as higher blood pressure, immune system dysfunction, impulsive behaviour, impaired judgment, and lower quality of sleep—all of which make us more prone to early mortality.

Our loneliness is killing us. So why are we not still talking about it like we did in 2020? Why are we not doing more to prevent its spread?

Countries like Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K., and cities as large as Barcelona and as small as Villa del Conte (pop.: 5,400) in the northern Italian region of Veneto have either enacted loneliness ministers, launched awareness campaigns, or begun implementing strategies to address the epidemic. Bradbury believes these measures can help change our view of loneliness from a personal to societal issue. “Having it be a bigger, broader conversation helps people recognize that this isn’t necessarily a personal deficit, but more widespread,” she explains.

In the Canadian context, a national conversation on loneliness is lacking, but there are a growing number of community-led initiatives striving to address systemic issues like loneliness that contribute to our collective well-being. A handful of these initiatives were made possible by the findings of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW).

“What would it really take to measure Canadians’ quality of life?”

A board member from the Atkinson Foundation—a non-profit organization with a mandate for social and economic justice—posed this question back in 1999 upon reflecting on the irrelevance of gross domestic product, which was and is still misguidedly often cited as a marker of a nation’s well-being, to reflect the social and cultural landscapes.

The Foundation decided to change this focus on economic health by developing a measurement tool for the well-being of people and their communities, the CIW. While they’d hoped the tool and its recommendations would capture federal attention, it was local leaders and grassroots organizations that showed interest at first, approaching the developers to learn how it could help improve wellbeing within their communities.

“Our first question for them is ‘Have you organized yourself with like-minded organizations within the community?’” shares Bryan Smale, the director of the CIW, which now operates out of the University of Waterloo. Smale has found that implementing the CIW is most effective when communities unite as a consortium, “We really emphasize the role that collaboration can play.”

Rather than approaching well-being “one problem, one solution” at a time, Smale also believes we should strive for policy changes that improve well-being across multiple domains, such as introducing a universal basic income, adopting a Pan-Canadian education strategy to support accessible opportunities throughout our lives, and offering universal access to leisure, arts, culture, sport, parks, and recreation. He also stresses the importance of assessing indicators of well-being in relation to each other, rather than in isolation, as they’re all interconnected.

Loneliness is not directly included as an indicator within the CIW; however, its prevalence is captured indirectly through several measurement criteria and has been addressed directly through the community-based surveys.

Smale shares that there has been some movement at a national level since federal and provincial governments eventually noticed the uptake of the CIW at the community level and responded to it. Statistics Canada now has an entire division devoted to measuring social well-being, including rates of loneliness.

In 2017, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health at the time, David C. Williams, issued a report on Connected Communities which included the CIW as a framework for measuring connectedness. He cited “loneliness and social isolation as serious public health problems that cost us all.” And in 2021, the Department of Finance Canada released a policy paper on drafting a nationwide Quality of Life Strategy, which built on the CIW’s framework to identify 83 indicators for assessment, one being loneliness.

Bradbury notes that while it’s important to include loneliness in these broader strategies, the loneliness epidemic calls for deeper analysis and targeted solutions, if we are to make a real difference to the lives of lonely Canadians. However, Smale notes that this federal strategy has been put on hold due to shifts in government priorities and clarifies that while the CIW was integrated into the Connected Communities report, his team was only involved in its review rather than collaborating more broadly on strategy or the implementation of recommendations.

Within this context, there does not appear to be a collective roadmap for addressing loneliness or building a future of collective well-being, a future that reports to date show is desperately needed. Outside of existing measurement practices, government reports lack teeth without dedicated funding and resources in place, both to implement solutions and raise awareness within the public discourse. By and large, communities in Canada seem still to be left to fight loneliness alone. Isn’t that how we got here in the first place?

Since the term “loneliness” shifted from being understood as synonymous with solitude to a distinct, negative emotional state in the early 19th century, it has increasingly shown up in songs, poems, plays, and prose, just as much as feelings of love, loss, and liberty.

There’s Emily Dickinson’s poem, written somewhere between 1886-1896, The Loneliness One dare not sound which describes the emotion as, “The Horror not to be surveyed – / But skirted in the Dark / with Consciousness suspended / And Being under Lock.” Fast forward nearly a century, and Leonard Cohen writes in his book Beautiful Losers, “Please make me empty, if I’m empty then I can receive, if I can receive it means it comes from somewhere outside of me, if it comes from outside of me I’m not alone! I cannot bear this loneliness. Above all it is loneliness.” And more recently, Dua Lipa asks, “Is the only reason you’re holding me tonight ‘cause we’re scared to be lonely?”

The architecture and intricacies of loneliness have been studied, over the past several decades, across academic disciplines as well. Since Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s trailblazing paper on loneliness in 1959, we have learned more about the phenomenon through the fields of psychology, neuro-urbanism, and feminist studies, amongst others. The prevalence of this research increased in the late 20th century, particularly following the creation of the UCLA Loneliness Scale in 1978 (the first standardized tool for measuring the state) and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, which as Noreena Hertz explains in The Lonely Century, supported a shift to individualism in all facets of life—how we live, work, get around, and more—leaving us prone to feelings of isolation and alienation.

And yet during that same time frame, it seems that loneliness scarcely made it into everyday dialogues, with loved ones and within communities.

Fromm-Reichmann suggested this void could be partially attributed to the incommunicable nature of the state, which produces a sad conviction that no one has experienced what we’re feeling. It could also result from how we lonely people experience our condition, which, as determined through a 2021 study out of the University of Bonn, can make us less trusting of others and thus less likely to engage in conversation about the parts of ourselves we hold close.

And these days, the unwillingness to talk about loneliness may also stem from our culture of hyper-connectivity and hyper-productivity; where a busy schedule and phone filled with notifications defines our worth, forcing many to hide their loneliness out of shame. As Anthony Silard explains in his 2021 Psychology Today article titled “How Social Media Exploits Our Loneliness”:

“Social media has, strangely, created its own demand. By isolating you from your friends, your loneliness becomes greater and you feel more motivated by what the British psychologist Pamela Qualter calls the ‘reaffiliation motive’ to check your social media and see what your friends are doing.”

But rather, loneliness should be understood as a failure of modernity, and the imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, and heteropatriarchal systems that support it (what bell hooks coined “dominator culture”). Shoshana Magnet, a professor of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa, calls these systems “the loneliness-making-machine” and believes the shame we feel when we are lonely is systemic as well. And yet, so much of the discourse remains focused on the state as an individual feeling, instead of a shared experience of today’s world. Magnet put this best, “We always want to blame the tree, not the poisoned root systems that feed it.”

In the first year of the pandemic, discourse around loneliness did shift to the realm of the collective. Associated with the everyday experience of life during a pandemic, “loneliness” was thrown around just as much as “unprecedented,” “essential,” or “the new normal.” I was hopeful this would be just the beginning of a larger conversation. But like “trauma” and “equity,” the word “loneliness” seemed to become a modern-day voguism, basking in its 15 minutes of fame.

What does this mean for the lonely ones? Those who were living in their loneliness before it became the new normal, or who tapped into chronic loneliness during the pandemic?

“It’s back to that individualized view, which is very like, okay, so it’s my fault that this is happening,” says Bradbury. “Health anxiety is at an all time high. [There’s] social anxiety across all ages… but also lots of relationship breakdowns because of different views.” And with lockdowns coming to an end, Bradbury notes that more of us are in a stage where we want connection but can’t access it, or feel this pressure to be social, even if that’s not what we want. “[These are] reasons for why people are still feeling that loneliness, but… we’re not talking about it as much.”

“I’ve been worried about you.”

I rarely heard that phrase in the months that saw our lives returning to some kind of normalcy, and that brought the heaviness of loneliness back into my life at a time when it seemed like its weight was lifting for many others. It left me to feel as though the loneliness that was spoken about so much in 2020 was not the kind that I carried.

Most days, it takes a pep talk or the fear of being late for me to emerge from the four walls of my world. I’ve moved now and am living with a partner and two pandemic pets in the ground floor apartment of a converted Victorian, one neighbourhood east of my last. But on nights spent in their company, probably bingeing a show to feed my desire for escapism, I feel filled with both love and emptiness. Even shoulder to shoulder at a concert, a place that used to provide me with some refuge from my loneliness in the past, this emptiness now prevails. Since the pandemic, I’m more aware of myself and the space around me than ever before.

When I reached out to see if anybody else felt this way, through calls on social media and reading blog posts about the state, I discovered I was not alone.

Among those I spoke with was Olga, a server in her late twenties, who could relate to such feelings of emptiness. Having moved back in with her mom and brothers during the pandemic, her physical loneliness in Stoney Creek—a suburban neighbourhood in east Hamilton—is exacerbated by social media and the lack of places to make connections as a single, child-free adult.

Then there was Nina—a Torontonian in her late twenties—who, unlike Olga, lives close to her friends yet still feels lonely. “When things started to open up again, it was kind of like going back to almost being younger and being left out … getting hit with that super social anxiety again, like being so afraid to ask people to do things, or go out and just be seen.” Spending more time alone than she would like to because of this, Nina has found herself coping with a fear of being seen paired with the disappointment of not reviving her social life. “It can be such a vicious cycle,” she admits.

While women under 24 have been the hardest hit by loneliness in recent times, according to Statistics Canada, those feelings of emptiness, exclusion, and isolation are not unique to the young. Dr. GS, a 94-year-old living on the west coast, first truly felt lonely when he moved into his own place after his wife died in 2021, following years of her living with dementia. In writing to me, he revealed, “I did not know what to do with myself. I had all this time on my hands, I was basically not needed by anyone … I did not have a purpose. I realized my entire life responded to the needs of my wife and kids, my patients, and my work at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine—and now, nothing. I also had a great hole in my life … I did not want to have a girlfriend and definitely never thought of getting remarried, but I was yearning [for intimacy].”

In November 2021, Statistics Canada shared that 14 percent of Canadians aged 75 or over report always or often feeling lonely. And according to the Government of Canada’s Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors, “studies show that the lack of a supportive social network is linked to a 60 percent increase in the risk of dementia and cognitive decline; while socially integrated lifestyles protect against dementia.” The same report noted a troubling correlation between social isolation for seniors and elder abuse.

All the lonely people I spoke with for this story shared that at some point they’d found themselves wondering, “Is there something wrong with me?”

I see this question as a failure of our collective discourse.

In moments where I’ve shared my own lonely feelings with others—in writing about how cities spur loneliness or in conversation with my therapist and friends—I’m often asked what I would need to make things better. This is a question that leads me to fantasies about running away to the French countryside and spending my days labouring on a farm or vineyard. What I’m really saying is, “I need a different world.”

For me, being so aware of the systemic reasons for loneliness can make it difficult to envision a future without it. What I’m craving is a space, right here in Canada, where experts, leaders, and everyday people living with loneliness can come together to envision this different world.

Yes, the constant use of the word during more or less two years of lockdowns, bubbles, and restrictive measures did bring loneliness into everyday dialogues—at least during that time. But there’s a difference between fleetingly acknowledging loneliness and seriously talking about it with the goal of addressing the underlying issues. And I fear we spent too much time doing the former. Capitalizing on language, diluting the term, and ignoring the chronic nature of our loneliness crisis.

So, what now when we’re tweeting about it less and thinking about it less? How can we revive the dialogues about loneliness that sparked up earlier on in the pandemic and act upon them?

Emily Empel has been exploring this question through her new venture, Advance Notice—a collective of fellow futurists and strategists, as well as a Jungian-trained analyst, Akashic record reader, movement facilitator, and anthropologist, who help others envision what the future could look like and put that vision into practice. Empel first brought together this interdisciplinary group of dreamers to explore the future of collective well-being. In this project she asks, “How do we think about this at a systems level and on a societal scale versus putting the onus on the individual to solve for how they feel?”

I asked a similar question of Empel and all the other people I spoke with on the subject of loneliness. My own interviews sparked dialogues about the need for us to attend to our mental health not just individually, but collectively. There were suggestions that we conceive of new housing models and third spaces—communal places distinct from home and work—that are affordable, accessible, and responsive to our changing culture. That we bring artists, comedians, kinkeepers, a whole range of everyday people into the solution. And that we change public policies, whether that means formalizing the implementation of the CIW through government funding; including loneliness as a measure of community health just as diabetes, heart disease, or other chronic illnesses are; or providing guaranteed universal income, so everyone can afford the foundational elements necessary for well-being (housing, food, transportation, clothing and the likes).

As Shoshana Magnet shared with me, “The world will not be fixed by one big thing but a million tiny little gestures.”

We all experience life in our own unique way, and just as the pandemic has shifted our experiences of inhabiting this world, future events will too. No single solution will help us all, so we need a collective loneliness strategy for all the tiny little gestures to stem from—one that will destigmatize loneliness by continuing the conversation, inviting people living with loneliness to talk and listening to what they have to say.

The next steps? To create a foundation of contextual and embodied research on the Canadian experience of loneliness; to mobilize, based on the recommendations that come out of this research, with the support of ample funding; and as we implement solutions around our collective well-being that involve us all as community builders, to monitor progress over time. Perhaps most importantly, awareness campaigns can only take us so far: for real change to happen, we need to be guided by a collective vision for an alternate future so that we can fall in love with the solutions and begin to live them today.

COVID-19 case counts rise and fall, but loneliness remains.

Now’s the time to do something about it.

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