- Loneliness and boredom are common bedfellows.
- Like boredom, loneliness is rising and is bad for our mental and physical health.
- We need meaningful social connections to combat both boredom and loneliness.
Five years ago, the government of Great Britain appointed a Loneliness Minister to the great delight of late-night talk show hosts across the pond—the fodder for jokes was an obvious softball. But the announcement was clearly in response to a serious and growing problem, one that needed addressing.
Loneliness is a complex experience, one that can heighten our sense of vulnerability, making us more wary of threats, which, in turn, leads to elevated stress and all the attendant problems associated with that.
But it is also true to say that it is fundamentally boring to be on our own.
The British push to address loneliness was initially focused on the elderly living in social isolation. Research has certainly shown that loneliness in the elderly can be driven by boredom. It may actually be a vicious cycle—being bored with what the world has to offer, we fail to go out and seek engagement, leaving us alone and disconnected from the world. And intensely bored.
And just like boredom, loneliness has been associated with poor mental health, challenges to cognitive function, and even cognitive decline in the elderly. One recent study showed loneliness to be associated with both psychological (e.g., elevated depression, sleep challenges, alcohol abuse) and physical (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, obesity) challenges. Clearly, loneliness is not good for us.
For its part, boredom is defined as a feeling of wanting but failing to engage with the world. Perhaps our most constant and important form of achieving engagement is through our contact with others. We are, after all, a social animal.
But how many friends do we really need?
To answer this question we have to go all the way back to our primate ancestors. Which brings us to what is now known as Dunbar’s number. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, proposed in the 1990s that the size of social groups among primates (including ourselves) is determined by the size of the neocortex, that most recently evolved part of your brain that enables all of our most complex behaviors.
Put crudely, a bigger neocortex allows for a larger social circle. For humans, with our big brains, Dunbar’s number is around 150.
That number—150—is meant to capture the size of your meaningful social group, the people you know well, interact with fairly frequently, and can turn to in times of need. There is a scaling to the number that suggests for the most important social needs, the group you turn to gets smaller and smaller by a factor of three—so for your most crucial social needs—comfort in times of grief, for example—you may have only a handful of people in your inner circle.
There is no absolute threshold beneath which we all feel lonely. You may feel physically surrounded by other humans and yet still feel lonely if your connections don’t satisfy your need for a meaningful life. Here, too, boredom has commonalities with loneliness in that any perceived lack of meaning will color things as being boring.
So, to solve loneliness, like solutions to boredom, we can’t simply reach for any kind of interaction. We need things that are meaningful to us.
False solutions can compound the problem.
We tend to think of loneliness as more of a problem for the elderly, but a recent survey suggests that, in Britain at least, loneliness is more prevalent among the young. How can this be when it is this age group that is seemingly so connected online?
Does having hundreds or even thousands of followers online, many more than we need according to Dunbar’s number, do anything to keep loneliness and boredom at bay?
It turns out that the answer to that is no. You might have thousands of followers on Twitter (or X as it is called now) or Facebook connections in the stratosphere, but when you look closely at how you interact with those connections, the meaningful interactions are still constrained to Dunbar’s number. Within your voluminous connections and followers, you have the most meaningful interactions with only a fraction—a fraction that turns out to be pretty close to 150!
Even though our brains constrain just how many meaningful interactions we can engage with on social media, that doesn’t stop many of us from seeking more followers, more likes, more reposts. And here, both loneliness and boredom can be strong drivers. For a small percentage of people, their interactions with social media and their smartphones can become problematic (addiction-like) when driven by feelings of boredom and loneliness.
And, of course, there is the vitriolic and harmful side of social media where people engage in trolling that can only be described as harmful interactions. We’ve known for some time that boredom can act as a prime driver of this kind of behavior. A more recent study suggested that loneliness, too, is a prominent motivator of internet trolling. It is possible to think of this kind of trolling behavior as an attempt to be seen and heard in a chaotic environment, what sociologist Orin Klapp once called “ego-screaming.” When trolling turns hateful, it may, disappointingly, be a functional way to establish meaning.
It seems obvious that we ought to seek more positive ways to eliminate our boredom and lift ourselves out of loneliness. What might work for the latter?
Are robots the answer?
The past few decades have seen a boom in the development of humanoid robots, particularly in Japan.1 (For a more dystopian take, one can always rely on Elon Musk, whose bot, in stark contrast to one of Japan’s more popular models named Lovot, is called Optimus—which to us sounds ominous.)
Can companion robots help dispel loneliness? There are many who say their interactions are meaningful and fulfilling. But there is at least one study that suggests they may reduce boredom, but not loneliness.2 The novelty of a humanoid (or animal-like) robot may work well to temporarily eliminate boredom engaging us with the unique experience. But what we are seeking in a social interaction is just that—interaction. Agency is key here—not merely our own, but the knowledge that those we are interacting with are agents in their own right. The way in which our interactions will unfold depends not just on our own desires or the programmed responses of a robot but also on the coming together of agents.
It's perhaps not surprising then that we tend to see those who talk only about themselves as boring—we want to have something to say, too. Our social needs are a two-way street met only by the thrust and parry of unpredictable engagement.
And this may be why animal companions are more effective in eliminating loneliness than robots—our pets have agency. We don’t completely control what they do. And we know that they were not merely preprogrammed to respond in certain ways, regardless of how sophisticated that programming might be.
Our interactions, whether with each other or our pets, are mutually agentic—our companions have needs and exhibit control in their choices that make it obvious we are engaged in meaningful communication.
Loneliness is a serious issue, one that is complex and likely requires complex solutions. That boredom is a common bedfellow of the experience highlights the key component of loneliness is a lack of connection to the world around us and the people in it. We are indeed social beasts, and whether we need 5, 50, or 150 friends is less important than the need to meaningfully interact with others.
1. Johann Fleuri. Japan’s emotionally enhanced robots — and the people who love them. The Japan Times. November 13, 2022.
2. Crewdson, J. A. (2016). The effect of loneliness in the elderly population: A review. Healthy Aging & Clinical Care in the Elderly, 8, 1.