How Modern America is Optimized for Loneliness, Misery, and Poor Health

David Friedlander
8 min readApr 19, 2024
The American pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness have been displaced by the imposition of loneliness, misery, and the pursuit of consumer goods.

Recently released research from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that middle-aged Americans are lonelier than their European counterparts. According to an APA press release, the study was conducted from 2002 to 2020 and observed more than 53,000 participants from the United States and 13 European countries. Responses were drawn from participants who were between the ages of 45 and 65. Leaving aside the fact these are optimistic “middle” ages (at 87 years, Monaco has the longest average life expectancy and most countries, including the US at 76 years, are under 80 years), the study’s findings point to global declines in social connectivity as well as ones specific to the U.S. that warrant investigation and, ideally, a response.

The study may not have pinpointed specific causes for the loneliness trend, but it did make some guesses. From the press release:

The study identified differences in cultural norms, socioeconomic influences and social safety nets between the U.S. and other European countries as potential explanations for the loneliness gap between the U.S. and Europe. Cultural norms in the U.S. are often characterized by individualism, increased social media use, declining social connections and increasing political polarization. The pressure faced by U.S. middle-aged adults is also further compounded by a higher residential mobility, weaker family ties, increasing job insecurity and income inequality. Additionally, social safety nets in the U.S. tend to be less comprehensive compared with some European nations regarding family leave, unemployment protection and childcare support.

The APA findings align with the Surgeon General’s 2023 declaration of a loneliness epidemic and 2021 Harvard research that found “36% of all Americans — including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children — feel ‘serious loneliness.’” According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (via CDC), the consequences of this loneliness are significant, including:

  • “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.”
  • “Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.”
  • “Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.”
  • “Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.”
  • “Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.”

But Americans aren’t just lonely, they’re unhappy too, at least according to The World Happiness Report. First published in 2012, the report tracks the self-reported happiness of people across the globe, and this year’s report, which surveyed over 100,000 people spanning 130 countries, saw Americans drop 8 spots on the list to 23rd place. The report’s editor, Lara Aknin, told Axios some of the reasons for the decline, especially for Americans under 30 who rank 62nd happiest in their age group (over-60 Americans rank 10th place). Aknin said:

Today’s young people report feeling less supported by friends and family, less free to make life choices, more stressed and less satisfied with their living conditions…[and] people under 30 today also feel less confident in government and have increased perceptions of corruption.

She also noted that older Americans are happier than young ones. In other words, as lonely as the older Americans may be per the previously cited APA study, young people are lonelier and unhappier (the two states are highly correlated).

To recap, today’s America is an economically-shaky, politically corrupt and polarized country lacking adequate social safety nets for most of its citizens; a country that fetishizes individuality and digital escapism while shirking family and social connections. Who’d of thunk these conditions would produce a lonely, unhappy, unhealthy populace?

There’s an additional reason for the above trends, a reason that points to a possible reason why Americans are lonelier than Europeans. That reason is suburban sprawl.

Suburbs: where loneliness and misery thrive.

Let’s start with some key facts about American housing in the last 20 years:

  • Single family (suburban) homes made up about 65–70 percent of the US housing stock. The median size of all single family homes is 1,826 square feet, with new homes hovering around 2,500 square feet for the last 20 years.
  • The average household size (the number of people living in a home) has remained around 2.55 for the last couple decades, meaning the U.S. per capita interior residential area is in the range or 700–1,000 square feet.
  • Median single family home lot sizes have ranged from 8,000–9,000 square feet. Housing and lot sizes are usually correlated, but not always, since small homes can occupy large lots and vice versa. Therefore, lot size is a more operative figure in terms of sprawl because it represents a home’s total footprint.
  • The average American daily spends an hour driving according to AAA, 25 minutes socializing and communicating, 2.5 hours watching TV, and 16 minutes exercising, according to the BLS.

What do housing, transit, and lifestyle statistics have to do with loneliness and unhappiness, you might ask. Well, I don’t think it’s a reach to suggest that separating people physically leads to emotional-psychological separation. Moreover, the implements that make sprawl-induced physical separation work on a societal level — cars to contract longs distances, digital media to ameliorate the effects of social isolation — deepen loneliness and unhappiness on the personal level. These implements also make people sedentary, directly relating to the fact 73 percent of the total American population is overweight and 42 percent is obese, per the CDC.

One of the biggest issues is population density. At risk of oversimplifying, it’s a lot harder to socially isolate when there are people around you. America’s obsession with and dependence on low density, single family housing precludes people living close together. A suburb near where I live, Louisville, Colorado, has a population density of 2,665 people per square mile. Outside my longtime home of New York City is Scarsdale, New York, whose population density is 2,734 people per square mile. But these are relatively dense suburbs with areas zoned for apartments and condos. The population densities of most American suburbs is closer to 1,800-2,000 people per square mile.

Compare these suburban population densities to a few cities where I’ve lived: Brooklyn at 37,339 people per square mile, DC at 11,280, and Berkeley at 11,917. Relating back to the APA study, European cities (both big and small), tend to have higher population densities than American ones. For example, Paris’ population is 53,000 people per square mile, Copenhagen at 18,900, and Munich at 13,000.

But the numbers belie key details that make American suburbs — and the country’s sprawling, car-centric cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and LA — such lonely, miserable, unhealthy places.

Most dense, urban areas have mixed use zoning, so people can live near where they work, shop, and recreate, so residential areas don’t clear out during work hours and commercial areas don’t clear out during off hours. There are also many “third spaces” — neutral spaces to meet that are neither residential, nor professional — like sidewalks, cafes, bars, and parks to meet and run into other people. People in dense areas often walk and use public transportation to get around, giving them ample opportunities for frequent, spontaneous social engagement.

Low density suburbs and cities are often characterized by single-use zoning, meaning housing is in one place and work, shopping, and recreation are in another. This zoning produces residential areas that are lifeless during working hours, save landscaping crews. And because suburban life is largely centered inside homes, not on the sidewalks, bars, cafes, etc., residential areas remain lifeless at night as well.

See if you can spot the differences between this cafe in Seville, Spain and this Starbucks in some random American suburb. This Starbucks, like many suburban chains, has a drive-thru window, which obviates the need to leave one’s car to consume and in so doing eliminates the limited possibility of social interaction parking lots provide.

Instead of third spaces, suburbs have strip malls, office parks, and other commercial districts, each designed to move people from parking lots to cash registers, desks, etc. as fast as possible, thus leaving few opportunities for spontaneous or planned social encounters. And of course the dominant form of suburban transportation are cars, which socially and environmentally insulate their drivers, often whilst drowning them in stress-inducing cortisol. If suburbanites manage to have social connection and happiness in these conditions, they are doing so in spite of the many barriers modern America puts in front of them.

In the intro, I alluded to a “response” to global declines in social connectivity and, by extension, happiness. A high level response involves the abolition of single family, single use zoning, regulatory mechanisms that effectively prevent easy socializing and human-powered movement from home to work to shops and beyond. Barring that, a ground level response involves forsaking big, individuated homes to live in areas with relatively high density and near central business districts; it involves walking, biking, or taking public transportation when you would otherwise drive; it involves directing your eyes away from screens to the people and things in your environment.

Of course, even suggesting to Americans that they reorganize and reorient how they live — something I frequently and foolishly do to anyone who will listen — sends most of them, particularly older ones, into paroxysms of protest. Younger folks are generally more open to new ways of living, but they generally lack sufficient economic or political clout to affect change. So it seems to me that change will only come about when loneliness, misery, poor health become unbearable enough to cancel out the dubious comfort of the status quo. I fervently pray that time comes soon.



David Friedlander

Pondering the future, today. Housing, health, and lots of other stuff.