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Loneliness is not 'just a first world problem'

April 30, 2024

We know people get lonely — COVID lit a loneliness epidemic. But we don't know enough to help everyone in poorer regions, like sub-Saharan Africa.

A young person lies on a sofa looking at their smartphone
Many young people experience loneliness due to the pressures of modern life, including social mediaImage: Thomas Trutschel/photothek/picture alliance

You may know the feeling. Your days are characterized by a dull haze of sameness. You want to connect with people, but even when you get the chance, you don't feel happy enough to get out and meet them. You don't want to bother friends with your issues — you don't even think there is anyone you could turn to.

Everyone else seems to be normal. You are convinced you are different. You feel lonely, and you feel it written in your face.

But we all have lonely moments or periods and health experts know it, too.

Health bodies in the UK, US and Japan have been warning of the risk of a loneliness crisis since before the COVID-19 pandemic — a time when many people said they felt an increased sense of loneliness and other mental health issues.  

But why? And how widespread is loneliness? Some researchers say loneliness could be connected to pressures we feel in our everyday lives.

Loneliness and the pressures of success in the city

Kamna Chhibber, a psychologist based in India, said loneliness was a byproduct of globalization, industrialization and a rapid spread of technology.

Data on loneliness in India is sparse, but some surveys have indicated that up to 40% of adults in the country say they feel lonely.

The country is undergoing significant migration, particularly among young people, from smaller towns and cities to larger urban centers, Chhibber said. This migration has weakened a sense of support that people traditionally got from their families.

"Elders, or even your neighbors, community elders, providing you with some guidance, helping you solve problems, mak[ing] decisions … that has completely gone away," the psychologist told DW.

Chhibber explained that as with other large cities of the world, life in urban India was rife with competition, long working hours and anonymity — like not knowing your neighbors — and these are all factors that can contribute to loneliness.

Social media doesn't help, either, said Chhibber — for many people, an endless scrolling through posts prevents them from getting out into the world and making real personal connections with people, in person.

But research published in 2021 indicated that even in tight-knit, rural villages, people were feeling loneliness. Despite being surrounded by people, you can still feel loneliness when you feel misunderstood by family or other people in the community. 

Making city living better

A lack of historical data on loneliness in poorer regions

Experts say it's hard to understand the global spread of loneliness because they lack the data, especially in low and middle-income countries.

"There are marked differences in the data [we have from] high-income countries and low and middle-income countries," said Andre Hajek, a professor at Hamburg University's Center for Health Economics. "We lack valid, population-based studies on loneliness in low and middle-income countries."

While there is anecdotal evidence, some experts say they need more empirical data to understand how loneliness affects broader populations, in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. 

"There is a lack of comprehensive empirical data on loneliness in sub-Saharan Africa," wrote Razak Gyasi, a member of the WHO's Commission on Social Connection, in an email to DW.

"However, anecdotal evidence suggests that loneliness is a widespread psychosocial phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, even more than in the Western world, and particularly among older people and women," Gyasi said. "Approximately 30-40% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa [reported] transient and chronic loneliness."

This was largely due to a perceived lack of close relationships, bereavement, and young people moving away. Gyasi said the Commission would address the problem by developing practical interventions for psychosocial conditions, including loneliness and feelings of isolation.

Does social media alleviate loneliness?

Tackle loneliness by prioritizing relationships

We may not have the best data on loneliness, but we do know how it feels, and over time, we can learn to recognize the symptoms. And we can learn how to deal with it.

Chhibber said young people should try to handle their loneliness by looking within. In the pursuit of success and achievement, Chhibber said many young people forget to pause and think about what's important to them.

You should ask yourself: "Do I need to pause and stop for a little bit and just try and understand for myself [what I want]?" said Chhibber.

When we neglect what's important to us, we often forget to focus on personal relationships with family and friends, or potential friends.

"[Young people] are just constantly moving from one thing to the next to the next" at the expense of their relationships, said Chhibber. "It almost feels like everyone's in some sort of a race — towards what, we have no idea."

Hajek, whose research generally focuses on older people, said it was also important for aging adults to try to maintain their skills, such as doing their own finances and using the phone for as long as possible to counteract loneliness.

But some things are out of our control. The death of a spouse, for example, can have a "tremendous" effect and contribute to loneliness, said Hajek. That's when "safety nets," such as family and friends and pets, or "looking after grandchildren" will help you feel connected through share experiences. 

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

Primary source:

Loneliness across cultures with different levels of social embeddedness: A qualitative study. Published in the journal Personal Relationships by Luzia C. Heu et al., February 2, 2021 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pere.12367

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration