When I’m feeling lonely, I have two lines of defense. My first line of defense: I set up social plans. In the meantime, I enact my second line of defense: I get outside, even if the walk I take is solo. These two responses kick in for me as natural solutions. Feeling lonely? Make some plans and get out of the house!
We are used to attributing loneliness -- a felt deprivation of connection, companionship, and camaraderie -- to person-level causes, like a move or a break-up, and person-level solutions, like initiating connection with a local hobby group. Xiaoqi Feng and Thomas Astell-Burt, researchers at the Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, say that our conception of loneliness as a person-level issue prevents us from seeing the whole picture. Their December 2022 ‘comment’ (expert opinion) in The Lancet: Planetary Health breaks down the factors creating what they call ‘lonelygenic environments.’
First, the authors establish that aside from its association with anxiety and depression, loneliness has a stigma of its own. Speaking for myself, I find it embarrassing to be lonely and judge myself for not making more plans or sufficiently investing in friendships.
Feng and Astell-Burt say loneliness is rational because our environment generates feelings of loneliness. “It is the shortsighted, inadvertant [sic], reckless, and negligent decisions made across society, fostering stigma and structural discrimination (racism, sexism, ableism, classism), that generate social and built environments that make many people with these characteristics feel perpetually isolated and unsafe,” write the authors. Just as the discrimination embodied in our built and social environments impacts our health, it also impacts our loneliness. Say that you are a person using a wheelchair who finds that to enter a local park, you need to ascend a staircase. Does this make you feel as though your needs were considered in designing this public space? Do you feel that this space welcomes you? We take the cues our environments give us.
In addition to placing value on our social identities, Feng and Astell-Burt say, our built environment gives us cues indicating the “near universal prioritization of cars over people across societies”. In a car-centric society, our interactions are chosen based on our personal safety. A driver encounters another driver as an unpredictable potential threat about whom they must be constantly vigilant. The pedestrian-driver relationship is similarly fraught: two humans interacting becomes an interaction of a human on foot and a human operating a hulking, dangerous machine. Our commutes are defined by interactions that make us feel threatened and embittered.
The impact of our car-centric society also extends to the built structures we have prioritized over recent decades. What does the construction of an interstate over or through your neighborhood, or the house you used to own being seized as a part of ‘urban renewal’ under ‘eminent domain’ and replaced with a university parking lot, tell you about how much your way of life is valued and respected?
“Electric vehicles will not change” the prioritization of cars over people, the co-authors state, because although they reduce carbon emissions, they contribute to ‘lonelygenic environments’ just the same as gas-powered cars. A turn toward investment in public transportation and compact cities is part of the answer.
Although travelling in proximity to others acts as one buffer to loneliness, public transportation and compact cities’ most crucial buffer is the access they unlock to third places, such as parks, libraries, or cafes, outside of home or work which, Feng and Astell-Burt say, create space for complex social interactions which help to combat loneliness. This access is especially important to older adults, others experiencing mobility issues, and those without the ability to drive or access a car. The authors also cite tree canopy as a crucial third place, the loss of which “is depriving people of the settings where nourishing connections and community spirit can be fostered,” "disproportionately in lower-income communities.”
Feng and Astell-Burt's call to action is to “establish a foundation of evidence that measures lonelygenic environments, which could vary from place to place,” and integrate it into current strategies to reduce loneliness to make them more effective. This leaves plenty of flexibility to adapt measures to community needs: what characteristics make up the ‘lonelygenic environment’, as well as the size, scope and boundaries that define these environments, are left to the researcher. But Feng and Astell-Burt make a powerful case for a new conception of loneliness that breaks down its causes from all angles, helping researchers like us identify new targets to reduce it.
Abby Kisicki is NCH2’s Research Editor. She serves as the Research Coordinator for the Horton Research Group (HRG) at Northwestern University. Led by Dr. Terry Horton, HRG is an interdisciplinary research group at Northwestern which studies the health benefits of and access to green and blue spaces.