In looking at the effects of living alone, Klinenberg says, "I make a very careful distinction between living alone, being alone, being isolated, and feeling lonely. These are four different things. And most researchers, even the best of them, conflate them."
"It's really a specific minority of people who live alone who are vulnerable," he says. "And we could do much more to provide care and support for them than we do now. We could do more to connect them to other people and services. And that's what would make them safer."
The opportunities and challenges of living alone differ greatly, depending on a person's age and marital history. About 5.5 million young adults under age 35 live alone, Klinenberg says. Especially in larger urban areas, they have an unparalleled mix of social options. Coupled with the explosion of online media and networking tools, there is no societal reason for these people to be lonely, and many reasons why living alone can produce a fulfilling and happy experience.
Among people ages 35 to 65, he explains, most of the those who live alone were previously married. "What's new today is that they are not going to remarry the wrong person." Social pressure to be married has receded, and single people are getting a lot more affirmation about making the best decisions for themselves. "People who live alone do get lonely," Klinenberg says, "but so do people in marriages."
Among people over age 65, there are 11 million one-person households. It's here, many experts fear, that loneliness and isolation can take an enormous toll on health and happiness. Many of these people are widowed, and most of them are women who have outlived their husbands.
Building new friendships and social networks is an effective strategy to ward off the negative consequences for older people who live alone. Moving into a senior living complex may make sense for those who may need help finding companionship, social activities, and help with their daily lives. Throughout the country, hundreds of groups of seniors have formed virtual senior communities to provide organized support to one another as they continue to live alone in their homes.
The key to healthy aging, sociologist Laura Carstensen says in her book A Long Bright Future, is to build a plan that anticipates the needs of older age. Renew your social networks. Find younger friends and new activities and social organizations. Build daily routines and a lifestyle that matches what you've previously envisioned as the way you want to live.
In the end, human relationships are the best antidote to the downside effects of living alone. Toni Antonucci, a University of Michigan psychologist and relationship expert, creates an image of people having a social convoy that helps them navigate their life. Keeping that convoy intact is essential for our happiness. People need to realize this and take ownership of their relationships. "We just sort of think happiness comes to us," she says. "We need to rethink that. You can do things to make yourself happier. People should take some responsibility for being happy instead of it being a passive thing."