Coming out of COVID, with gatherings restricted, there is a renewed emphasis on loneliness in the culture at large. As Susan Mettes reports in her new book, The Loneliness Epidemic, many of these trends were in existence long before COVID hit but exacerbated by the 2+ years of restrictions. Join Scott and Sean for this insightful discussion that touches us all.

Susan Mettes is a behavioral scientist and researcher and Associate Editor for Christianity Today. She lives with her husband in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.








Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell professor of apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest, Susan Mettes, who is halfway around the world at present. Susan, we're very grateful for you joining us at the end of your work day, hopefully we're not interrupting your dinner hour. But she's written a fascinating new book, which we wanted our listeners to be aware of called, The Loneliness Epidemic, subtitled, Why So Many of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond. It's a very timely book, especially coming out of a two year pandemic where people were locked down for a long period of time. Now Susan's coming to us from her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she lives with her husband who is on a diplomatic military posting. She is an associate editor of Christianity Today, she has done research on wide variety of topics. I think it's fair to say Susan, that you're a professional researcher. And so first of all welcome, really glad to have you with us. Thanks for coming on and talking to us about your book.

Susan Mettes: Thank you so much. I'm happy to be here.

Scott Rae: Yeah. So tell us, what first got you interested in this particular topic? Like I mention, you've been involved in research on a wide variety of topics, but what captured your attention on this subject of loneliness?

Susan Mettes: Well, I was working with Barna group looking at some of the results that we were getting back from interviews and surveys, and it just seemed to me that loneliness was playing a really big role in people's lives. And I said, "Hey, let's look a little deeper into this, let's see if we can get some more information." And that led to the book, and this collaboration on the surveys that make up the backbone of the book about what Americans are experiencing with their loneliness.

Sean McDowell: Susan, the moment I saw the title, The Loneliness Epidemic, it rung true to me because I work with young people and also have studied this not as much as you have, but I know some people are thinking, "Wait a minute, how can this be an epidemic when we have so much connecting technology today, how could people be so lonely?"

Susan Mettes: I think that's a really good question. And honestly, it's an important one because people keep trying to solve loneliness with technology, nothing against technology, but loneliness signals a lack in quality in our relationships, or a lack of a relationship that's important to us, or that we're missing a particular person. And technology is not great at solving those problems, it's not great at helping us meet face-to-face with nothing in between us, although there are some things about that can get better. The way that we use it right now is usually for a fairly low quality communication, and it doesn't give us that emotional intimacy, or the trust, or the other things that really help us create the relationships that fight against loneliness.

Scott Rae: So Susan, tell us a little bit your assessment of the impact of the pandemic on loneliness in your research.

Susan Mettes: So this is really interesting, and I want to preface this by saying that our surveys were not the only ones that turned up this result. So we gave out the same questions right before the pandemic really became a big deal in the US. So COVID 19-existed, but it wasn't making headlines in the US at that point. And then after most adults had started socially distancing, so people who could be were at home rather than at work. And what we found was almost no change at all, and that's actually been a result that a lot of other researchers have found. It's a huge surprise in many ways, because it goes against what we think of. This is a guess that there is some resilience that we didn't realize we had, and then also, when we are home with our households, with our families that we find, we like them and it's good to be around them.

Susan Mettes: One study found that teenagers in particular, they were still spending a lot of time on social media, but they were also spending more time with their parents and their siblings than before. And so none of that undermines the fact that this is a distressing time that a lot of people are struggling through with life in general, struggling with bereavement, struggling with all sorts of things. But loneliness just doesn't seem to have been one of the big problems that kicked in early on in the pandemic. Now, I think a lot of us who study this still expect an uptick and certainly for the upward trend and loneliness to continue, but it just didn't have that spike that a lot of us at least expected initially.

Sean McDowell: Yeah. I wouldn't have expected that either with the data coming out. Now, you make what seems like a counterintuitive point at first, that there's an upside to occasional loneliness. Tell us what you may mean by occasional loneliness and why there would be an upside to it.

Susan Mettes: Yeah. Loneliness is really a gauge, and what it tells us is pay attention to your relationships, there's something wrong with your relationships. And so that attention that we pay hopefully in response to loneliness of going deeper with people that we already know, of initiating new relationships, those are good things. Loneliness also gives urgency to some things that need urgency. We need to feel a need to connect with other people. If we didn't, then we wouldn't be people, it's part of our humanity to need other people and to miss them when they're not around. So I think we can't regret that when things go wrong with our social lives, we feel lonely. I will say that it also helps us I think, to turn inward in some ways, that's not always bad. But to think about, "Is my life on the track that I want it to be on? Are my relationships in the place that they should be?"

Susan Mettes: And hopefully that is a constructive way to respond, and hopefully a lot of people are taking that route. Now there are destructive ways to respond to loneliness of course, and we're hoping that people do resist those. And those include trying to get attention in ways that are self destructive or destructive of others. Sometimes you see people taking revenge on social media when they themselves feel rejected, you also might find that people try to substitute something else for quality relationships. So they might do things that are inherently not as satisfying all by themselves, but that absorb their attention for a long time. Sometimes you need a break and that's fine, but I think the response of fueling pain and trying to numb it with something that doesn't address the problem, that can be at work in a lot of American's lives.

Susan Mettes: So that sort of, "Hey things aren't right with the world." "Hey things aren't right with you or your relationships." That call to attention, I think can be a real help to us as we go through life. The problems begin like I said, when we respond badly to that, or when we have a chronic form of loneliness. When we always feel lonely, and when it really is something that is just part of our day in and out all the time, that kind of loneliness is where you see big health problems, a bad cycle that involves anxiety and depression as well as loneliness. That sort of loneliness is not something I'd ever prescribed to somebody because it's just very destructive of our health, of our ability to go out and try to carry on good relationships as well as our society at large.

Scott Rae: Well Susan, Sean and I are quite different personalities. I mean, he's much more extroverted than I am, and I'm quite a bit more of an introvert. And so my guess is that we might experience the phenomena of loneliness a little differently. So for myself, I put a very high value on solitude, that's what refreshes me. Sometimes I've been known to comment to people that all this getting back together again after the pandemic, is a little bit overrated. So how would you distinguish between loneliness and solitude? Because I suspect some of our listeners might get those two categories confused.

Susan Mettes: I like that. And partly I like it because our language used to complete the two as well, there used to not be a separate word for loneliness, which these days, the definition includes a sense of distress and being by yourself. So now we have different words to describe those things and it's helpful, because we don't all feel distress when we're on our own. In fact, all of us do need to be on our own sometimes. Introverts and extroverts need that solitude, and introverts and extroverts need company, and buddies and conversation. It's just the proportions that we need it in are different. But one of the things that I found in the research that really was surprising, is that people who feel they lack privacy.

Susan Mettes: So people who feel they don't have this solitude or that their lives are intruded on, they also feel lonelier. And I had expected the opposite, I had thought that there would be a trade off, that you experience this kind of unpleasant intrusion, but then you're not as lonely. No, that's not the case. Americans say that when they feel intruded on, they also feel lonelier. I think what this signifies is that we're not getting high enough quality solitude or high enough quality time with loved ones.

Sean McDowell: Susan, I'm really curious what the data shows about singles in comparison with married adults. Because just a couple days ago, I was speaking with a pastor friend of mine who's single, and he described in his experience that actually some of the loneliest people he spoke with were married couples, and he had reasons for why he thought that was the case. Of course, that's his experience in the UK, what does the data show if we look at single adults compared to married adults?

Susan Mettes: In the US it's really clear, single people are lonelier than married people. But that doesn't mean that each individual single person is lonelier than each individual married person. But really when you look at the pattern, marriage protects against loneliness to a huge extent. So if you look at single and married people, 38% of single people said that they hadn't been lonely at all in the previous week, so a minority, but 56% of married people said they hadn't felt lonely at all in the previous week. That's a big difference in who's experiencing loneliness. And it goes down the line with how frequently they do experience loneliness when they experience it, as well as how painful it's. So we ask people, "How painful is your loneliness on a scale from unbearable to barely noticeable?" And single people are much more likely to put the pain of their singleness in those higher levels.

Susan Mettes: So there's no reason to discourage people for marriage by saying that it's not going to help them with loneliness. But here's the thing, when you look at low quality marriages, then you have a lot of loneliness and most likely it's two people who are lonely, not one. And those people hopefully will go to a pastor for some help. So you do get people in marriages who feel very misunderstood, undervalued, unable to connect, and those people are experiencing loneliness. You also get single people who are not feeling a need to be married, who are feeling that their lives and their relationships are very satisfying. So there's a real difference here. But on average, people would like to be married and when they do get married, they find that it helps them not to feel lonely.

Scott Rae: Susan, let me tackle another area that might be a myth about loneliness, and I'm a little surprised that Sean hasn't gone there already on my behalf since I'm just a tad older than he is. But intuitively, we think that people who are older tend to be more lonely, but what does your data show about that?

Susan Mettes: Just the opposite. In America, the loneliest adults are the youngest adults and the older you get, the less likely you are to be lonely. It surprises a lot of people, and that is not a universal pattern. When you go around the world, there are countries where the oldest people are the loneliest, but it's not in our country and that's a really clear pattern, it's not even close. So I think that a lot of people imagine that when they're older, when they're retire, that they'll be bored, or that their lives won't be as glamorous as they want them to be. But those aren't actually things, even if they were true, that affect loneliness all that much. So one of the things that I looked at when I saw this pattern was, what's going on in young adult lives that's making them feel so lonely?

Susan Mettes: And the short answer is instability. They are not in households that are stable, so they tend to either be going or coming into a household. Either going from the household they grew up in, their family of origin into a household that they are on their own in, or with roommates or sometimes with the significant other. And those significant others by the way, that tends not to affect loneliness as much as marriage does. It just doesn't have as big an effect on the way that you feel about your life and your relationships. So you see these older adults have established lives, established patterns, long friendships, and those things help with loneliness. But some of the habits that have changed over time, are working against young adults too. A surprising turn of events, young adults stopped hanging out with their friends as much in recent generations, stopped doing things like driving around in cars as much and going to parties and all the things that young people are portrayed as doing in the movies, they're not doing those things as much anymore.

Susan Mettes: And that seems to be affecting the way that they make friends and conduct their friendships. Those things might stay within their whole lives. So it might be an age thing, it be a generational thing, it looks to me like it's a little bit of both.

Sean McDowell: Susan. I'm really curious what your data and your insight suggest about the connection between loneliness and social media. Because there's a lot of debate Jean Twenge for example, in her research in iGen argues that in 2012, there's a hockey stick in depression, which I realize is different than loneliness but there's a connection there. And she ties it to smartphones, and of course that's linked with social media. Is there a correlation? Is there causation? What's your insights and what does the data suggest about that?

Susan Mettes: Well, I think one thing that is clear is that social media has not been great for people's mental health. There are upsides, there are ways of using it that can be helpful, or at least not harmful. But when it comes to loneliness, the picture is pretty blurry. We can't tell exactly how social media has affected loneliness. One of the things that I can say, and this is from Twenge's research and other people who've been studying this using different tools, and different sorts of research than I use. That if you want to use social media in a way that's helpful rather than hurtful, then it will be something that you use to supplement real life relationships, that it'll be a way of carrying on and sharing with people that you know and care about in person, and it will be something that you don't spend... you don't shift your social life onto social media.

Susan Mettes: You conduct a social life in real life, and then you add onto that social media. So I think that is the challenge to us all, not just young people. Is to make sure that we are paying attention when we need to pay attention, that we aren't always on our phones. And mostly that we just are really careful not to substitute rather than supplement our interactions with social media.

Scott Rae: Susan, I wanted to explore one of your solutions that you bring out, which I admit is really counterintuitive. You suggest that one of the ways as people get older to counter loneliness is to invest more in friendships than in family. Now, assuming I read that correctly, but I know in my own family, we spent a lot of time with the parents of the kids that our own kids played sports with. But we discovered that once the kids quit playing sports with these folks, these parents dropped out of our lives almost immediately. And we've seen this in some of our friends who as they have grandkids, their kids are out of the house and grown, but they have grandkids, they invest in their grandkids and often they order their lives and where they live around them as opposed to friendships outside of the family. So this strikes me as a kind of a counterintuitive solution. Why is this investment in friendships more so than family an important part of the solution that you see?

Susan Mettes: Yeah, it's both counterintuitive and counter cultural. And the reason that I highlighted it is not because we get the most bang out of the buck or let me see... did I say that right?

Scott Rae: That's right.

Susan Mettes: Not because it's the most biggest solution that we can get by enhancing friendships, but because it's an important thing that we're letting it drop. So it's a little bit like not putting oil in your car, you're going to have problems down the road if you ignore the role of friendship in your life. So friendship is one of the kinds of relationships that people need in general, and that we need to not feel lonely. And Americans are getting worse at friendship, and particularly men are getting worse at friendship. We have fewer close friends than we used to, and we interact with them less than we used to.

Susan Mettes: We have fewer people that we talk about with important matters than we used to. We might be googling those things and getting better or worse information I don't know, but we aren't interacting with people in the same way, people outside of our families in the same way. And we're putting increasing pressure on our marriages, our families of origin to supply all of our social needs. Now I think there're some upsides to that, family is wonderful, marriage is wonderful. For most people, those are really life-giving relationships but the least lonely people that we saw were people who had a variety of close relationships, people in different roles. So you want to maintain close relationships with your spouse, of course with your parents, but also, siblings, cousins, friends and neighbors, I think is a big one that we're leaving out these days.

Susan Mettes: So that idea about friendships and neighbors, it's just not one of my ideas. It actually comes out of a multi-generational study called The Framingham Heart Study, which a study about heart health, but they ask questions about loneliness and they ask questions about close contacts who would be able to know where you were in a couple years. And what they found over a very long period of time, was that the people who got lonelier that it was kind of contagious. That loneliness started and spread in certain ways in a community, that it spread in close, like physically close relationships.

Susan Mettes: So between neighbors and between friends who live close to each other, and it also found that those physically close, like close to your location close relationships could have more influence on your loneliness or unloneliness, than the people in your family who weren't nearby. So for a lot of us, family isn't close, for some of us it is. But we need to invest in those relationships that are near to us, and in those friendships that are near to us, because what the data shows pretty clearly is that all kinds of relationships help with loneliness, and the people who are most protected have a really thick network of different kinds of relationships with friends, with neighbors as well as with family.

Scott Rae: Susan, a couple questions here before we wrap up. You have really insightful part in my view on how people managing their expectations, their relational expectations, is really important in overcoming loneliness. What did you mean by that?

Susan Mettes: So when I define loneliness as this gap in what we hope for and what we have in our relationship, there's a push-pull on that. There's the relationships that are available to us, maybe we've lost someone, maybe they moved away, those things are external. But there's also the disappointment because our expectations can't be met by that person, and our loneliness depends a lot on what we expect out of our relationships, and whether those relationships can bear those expectations. So when you expect nothing of a relationship, you're probably not going to be less lonely because of it, that's too low a bar. But when you expect constant communication, or for this person to be texting you more than they're texting person B, or you want to be in first place instead of in second place in your mother's heart, then you start running into these problems where you feel lonely not because the relationship this low quality, but because you are not able to accept the relationship for what it could be.

Susan Mettes: And we do see some cases where people just have expectations of the speed and frequency of communication that are just not good for the person on the other end. What we also see is people who have an interaction and feel bad about it, and then go on to back away from the whole relationship because they have this interaction that they see in a negative light. So they might see their part in a negative light, they might say, "Oh, I was so awkward that person can never like me." Or they might see the other person as having snubbed them or having just not been warm or enthusiastic enough. That kind of expectation also can be something that makes us lonely.

Susan Mettes: And the remarkable thing is we're often wrong, we're really good at having ourselves in this spotlight telling this story where we're the main character not only in our own lives, but in other people's lives and reminding ourselves that we're probably not the main character. That people who are delaying communication might something else going on, might just be busy, they might be sick, there are so many reasons that they might not be responding to us in the way or the speed that we want them to. I think it's really important to question our negative perception of our interactions when we start going down that road of backing away from relationships, because we feel bad about how they seem to us. We need to ask ourselves, could it be something else? Could it be okay? Is this a relationship I want to pursue anyway? And that actually has been one of the few organized interventions against loneliness that's shown an effect. So they compared a lot of things like teaching people social skills, and having parties for people. But this one really came out ahead and that is teaching people to question their negative perceptions.

Susan Mettes: And so I would encourage everyone to... when you feel bad about a relationship, when you think somebody hasn't responded to you for too long, when you sent them a Christmas card and they didn't send you a Christmas card, all of those things, we can allow them to detract from our relationship but I would encourage people not to let that happen, at least not in our parts. If the relationship is drifting apart for other reasons, that happens too. I mean I'm a military spouse, so I'm used to seeing people and then not seeing them for a really long time. But we can also have a little more resilience against awkwardness and communication problems than we do.

Scott Rae: Yeah. That's really helpful, really insightful advice on that. One final question Susan, what would you say is the impact of the church or someone's vibrant Christian faith on the phenomena of loneliness in their lives?

Susan Mettes: Not exactly what I had expected. So we see a lot of health and life satisfaction effects from going to church. Loneliness wasn't that different for church goers, and one of the things that we did see was that church goers did experience relative to other people, a bit of a boost during the pandemic. What I think that means is that a lot of different things are going on. Some people are coming to church lonely and becoming less lonely, some people are becoming lonely on leaving church, some people are becoming lonely within the church, some people are staying lonely within the church. But a lot of the things that we do are good for us and we shouldn't stop them, good for loneliness in particular.

Susan Mettes: And those things include caring for each other in particular ways, like when someone is grieving or has a new child, to make sure that we protect their time and bring them food, those things are things we shouldn't drop. I actually think we should expand that kind of care taking. We should continue singing together when we can, singing actually makes us feel unity and kind of a warm glow and it's one of the things that Christians do together that's actually really great for us. We should also continue to meet new people and to welcome new people. And I would add that as much as we can continue to form friendships in churches, we should encourage each other to do so.

Scott Rae: Wow. Susan, this has been so insightful. I want to commend your book to our listeners, The Loneliness Epidemic, subtitle, Why So Many of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond. Susan Mettes has been our guest. Thank you again Susan, for coming to us from halfway around the world in Tanzania, it's been a delight to talk to you and we look forward to seeing more of your work and more of your research in the future. So really appreciate this time, and I trust that for our listeners, this has been helpful and insightful in dealing with loneliness in your own life and in the lives of people you care about.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Offering programs in Southern California and online, including the Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our guest, Susan Mettes, give us a rating on your podcast app, and please feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.