The Research on Loneliness and Social Isolation:

A Mindful and Communal Response to a Social Epidemic

June 2020 

In contrast to the mindfulness communities that Vanessa and I visited around the world, there is a deep malaise in our society’s communal and relational health. Research over the last few decades, both in the US and abroad, shows us that the fabric of community life, including people’s sense of connection to their closest relations, has been steadily deteriorating. We live in a society where personal isolation and loneliness are at an all-time high. Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, more than one in five Americans reported feeling lonely, more people than ever said they had not even a single confidant, and the average person’s social network had shrunk in size by over one third. COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated these feelings of aloneness, social alienation, and widespread craving for human connection. Our society has reached a critical juncture, as people are more disconnected from each other than ever before.

Meanwhile studies claim more than ever that strong social ties have a profound influence on our happiness, physical health, mental clarity, and even our lifespan. Whether conscious of it or not people suffer from a lack of trustworthy relationships and community support, and some of them are looking for new ways to build such meaningful connections into their lives.

Once we wake up to the fact that community has a pivotal influence on the health of our bodies, minds, and world, we can begin to build more trustworthy, supportive connections and meaningful lives. As the research on loneliness and social isolation points to, no matter how we try to succeed by ourselves alone, happiness manifests most vibrantly within relationships. The need for community oases of mindful living and compassionate human connection is as great as at any time in history.  Let’s look at both the research on loneliness and isolation as well as community mindfulness practice so we can shine a bright light into how mindfulness communities can help people enhance the quality of their relationships and heal the depths of isolation within.

A Social Epidemic of our Time

The longest research project on happiness is a 75 year study by Harvard University. It has lasted three generations of researchers who have interviewed hundreds of people from early adolescence or undergraduate college years until the last years of their lives. Two findings of this study really point to the value of community and relationships.

The first is that strong social connections really support and enhance people’s well-being. The second finding is that loneliness kills. People who are more socially isolated than they wish to be find that they are less happy, their health deteriorates earlier in mid life, their brain functioning heads downhill more quickly, and they even die earlier than those with strong relationships. Right now, more than 1 in 5 Americans report that they are lonely (1). This is an epidemic of our time with grave consequences. 

A 2015 review of over 70 international studies and more than three million participants from around the world concluded that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone were all associated with increased risk of death that year (26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.) Interestingly, it wasn’t just just the older adults who were most at risk of these consequences; middle age folk living alone suffer more of these consequences than older adults. Both loneliness and social isolation are independently associated with poorer health behaviors such as poor sleep, smoking, and physical inactivity, as well as with biological health processes like higher blood pressure, and poorer immune functioning (2). Relationship quality has an even greater influence on one’s health than other risk factors like physical inactivity and obesity. Having a robustly integrated social life was as healthy as quitting smoking up to 15 cigarettes or consuming 6 drinks of alcohol per day! (3) It sounds like the only thing worse for one’s health than being lonely is being a lonely smoker!

Bowling Alone

The chasm of social isolation has been growing steadily over the last half century, exacerbating these health consequences. In 2000, Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking research revealed that across American social domains, social capital has been significantly decreasing. Social capital refers to, “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” (p. 19). Putnam documents the decline of in-person social interactions in American lives, from civic participation to workplace networks, informal networks, religious participation, political participation, mutual trust, and altruism. His meta-analysis empirically demonstrates that Americans’ in person social engagements have plummeted. For example, the number of people who bowl regularly had increased over the past few decades. However, the number of people who bowled with others in leagues decreased! When people bowl alone, they don’t engage socially or grow friendships that would normally occur in league environments. Hence, he aptly titled his book, “Bowling Alone” (4).

More recent research affirms that the number of Americans who say that they have no trustworthy person to confide in has tripled (5) and that the average person’s social network has shrunk in size by over one third (6). Affluent nations who have the highest rates of people living alone (6). The overall decline of social capital is due to less frequent intergenerational living, greater social mobility, getting married later in life or not at all, dual-career families, and more people living by themselves, among other reasons (3). Despite the growing connections through technology and social media, the quality of meaningful social relationships is clearly and steadily decreasing. I’m writing this right now in the midst of the greatest social distancing measures of modern history, during the COVID pandemic. If 20% of Americans were experiencing loneliness before spending their lives under shelter, we can only imagine what these numbers are like now, and what it will do to their health beyond the novel coronavirus.

The Good News

So that was the bad news. The good news is that there is plenty of uplifting research as well as opportunities before us to reverse these trends where it counts the most – in our own lives and communities. Those who have stronger and more intimate relationships with family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people with poorer social ties. Those with robust social networks were between 50% and 90% more likely to survive during the year than those without (3). The Harvard study showed that human connection is so influential to our physical health that at age 50, how satisfied they were in their closest relationships was a better predictor of health later in life than their cholesterol levels! The benefits of strong relationships transcends our physical health. Being in securely attached relationships to other people also protects one’s brain as people’s memories stay sharper longer. It’s not just the quantity of friendships either; rather, it’s the quality and closeness of those who we spend our lives with that benefits our health and longevity. Those with the greatest happiness and resilience were those who really leaned into their closest relationships, especially when facing tough life challenges (1).

In the “Art of Community”, Charles Vogl writes that millennials are more interested in connection and values-based activism than their predecessors. They yearn for close friendships, strong connections with their family, and engaging in creative, meaningful work with others that has a profound impact on their community and the world (7). High school seniors are more likely than previous generations to state that “making a contribution to society is very important to them and they want to be leaders in their communities.” Millennials are more enthusiastic about joining social movements or environmental causes than participating in social clubs as with previous generations (8). Business sage and author Seth Godin writes that we are now living in a connection based economy where people hunger for social and value based connections more than material things (9). 

Where are people finding these connections? A 2015 Pew Research report revealed that over one-fifth of the general public and one third of young adults under 30 were no longer participating in religious organizations. People continue to report that spirituality or God is still just as important to them, but they are no longer drawn to religious communities in the same way that their parents and grandparents were (10). Youth and Americans today are searching for relationships with those who share their ideals, but they’re often not connected to communities which facilitate meaningful ongoing connections, healthy participation, as well as life-honoring rituals.

Waking Up To Community

We need to help create refuges of compassionate and joyful communities where young people can come and nourish their spirits and protect themselves from society’s insidious effects of loneliness, isolation, and despair.  When practiced in community, mindfulness strengthens bonds of acceptance, appreciation, empathy, and joy between close friends and loved ones. Whether in person or on Zoom, weekly Sanghas and mindfulness groups offer the medicine needed to help heal our society’s estranged hearts.

For those who are new to this, mindfulness is the awareness of what is happening within and around us in this very moment, in the spirit of curiosity and kindness. Everyone has this innate capacity, and we can strengthen it within ourselves in every moment. Mindfulness helps us access the living intelligence of our own body and mind, grow our capacity to face suffering in ourselves and others with compassion, establish deeper relationship with nature, strengthen our bonds with others, and open our eyes to the gifts of life (among lots of other benefits!)  An even deeper aim of mindfulness within community is discovering our profound interdependence with each other and all life on earth, recognizing that we are never truly alone.

But practicing mindfulness depends on the guidance, motivation, and interpersonal experiences that arise in a Sangha, a community of practice. Mindfulness thrives in environments where slowing down and cultivating moment-to-moment awareness is collectively and compassionately encouraged, as opposed to mainstream societal tendencies towards extreme busyness, dispersion, and overconsumption. In community, we naturally learn from others how to uniquely adapt mindfulness to our lives where we struggle and need it the most. Without a community, we are a like bird lost from the flock, struggling alone against the wind.

Similar to our Sanghabuild journey of visiting thriving communities around the world, Professor Karen Liftin traveled to and wrote extensively about the most prominent ecovillages on the planet, communities dedicated to responding to our planet’s growing ecological disaster. She saw ecovillages as “seeds of hope sparsely spread across the global landscape.” Similarly, I see mindfulness communities as seeds of healing and transformation spread across the isolated landscape of humanity. We can easily grow these communities for ourselves and future generations if we put our whole hearts into the task, and ask for support and guidance from others. I don’t believe that mindfulness communities are the only answer to humanity’s problems. But it’s clear from my life experiences and travels that they offer a profound opportunity and viable path forward. For the sake of humanity, other species, and our planet, we need all the best answers we can get.

The next Sanghabuild post will share 5 ways of healing loneliness and isolation in community…

(Whether you are physically isolated or not)


  1. Quoted in Robert Waldinger, “The Good Life,” TEDxBeaconStreet, November 30, 2015.
  2. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne & Smith, Timothy & Baker, Mark & Harris, Tyler & Stephenson, David. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 10. 227-237. 10.1177/1745691614568352
  3. J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, and J. B. Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,” PLoS Med 7, no. 7 (2010), e1000316, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.
  4. Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone. 2000.
  5. McPherson M, Smith-Lovin L (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. Am Sociol Rev 71: 353–375.
  6. Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 3 (2006): 353–75.
  7. Vogl, Charles, The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  8. Fifteen Economic Facts about Millennials, Council of Economic Advisors,, October 2014.
  9. Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (London: Penguin, 2008), 24.
  10. “Nones on the Rise,” Pew Research on Religion and Public Life, October 9, 2012,