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Data dispatch #3: Sitting *alone* is the new smoking
Why the key to solving social isolation is not better policy, but a more equal society.
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Have you heard the phrase sitting is the new smoking? It’s a cliché, but a new study from Norway put a surprising spin on it. The researchers pooled data from four huge studies that tracked participants aged 50 and over across 5-to-10-year periods. They confirmed that those who spent 12+ hours per day on a chair had a significantly higher risk of dying before the follow-up measurement than those who sat 8 hours or less. But here’s the new insight: the relationship between sitting and dying was not found among people who (aside from sitting a lot) averaged 22 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. This includes activities such as cycling to work, taking a brisk walk, or mopping the floor. The harmful effect of excessive sitting can be neutralized by a small amount of daily movement.
Given this relatively easy fix, we should probably update the phrase to sitting alone is the new smoking. The U.S. Surgeon General stated as much in his recent report on social isolation and in his lecture tour this week. Here is one key data point: the average amount of time Americans spend with friends each day went down from about 60 minutes in 2003 to just 20 minutes in 2020. Of course 2020 brought us the COVID-19 lock-downs, but the downward trend started much earlier. (For more on the numbers behind this “social recession”, check out‘s excellent essay on this.)
We all know social isolation isn’t fun, but why does the Surgeon General care? It turns out that loneliness actually has strong, well-documented negative effects on mental and physical health. One famous overview study concluded that a lack of social connection raised the odds of dying before follow-up measurement by about 50%, on par with smoking 15 cigarettes each day. Social isolation is a particularly big issue for the elderly, and in our aging societies this will only get worse in years to come.
Unfortunately, it appears that social isolation doesn’t have a cure as simple as that for excessive sitting. The Surgeon General’s report instead contains an expansive National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, which lists technocratic tools to stimulate connection. The list includes training health professionals to work on social connection with their clients, and adopting a “connection in all policies” approach to governance that foregrounds social connection in all policy decisions, also in non-health domains.
This is where I think the report misses the point. The Surgeon General writes: “The world is just beginning to recognize the vital importance of social connection.” But isn’t that nonsense? Everyone knows how important and enjoyable socializing is. Social connection is totally instinctual for people: it’s how we learn, grow, and survive from when we’re born to the day we die. So if we’re not connecting enough, it’s not because we need to be pushed or reminded to be social—but because there are barriers to social connection that we are unable to overcome alone.
One major barrier was uncovered by scientists who did a deep dive into the same friendship data I mentioned above. In an article in the journal Social Science and Medicine - Population Health, they write: “Hours worked per week emerged as a structural constraint to social connectedness.” And this doesn’t just impact low-income workers who need multiple jobs to survive, as “low-income Americans are more socially engaged with ‘others’ than those with higher income”. In other words: the career rat race keeps even high earners from enjoying time with others, and it’s slowly killing us in the process.
Careerism and workaholism have many hypothesized causes, but here’s one based in data: they are driven by inequality. In unequal societies, people feel threatened in their social status, which pushes them to work more frantically. The solution to the loneliness epidemic is thus not to devise intricate social connection policies, but to create a more equal society in which people feel safe and free to socialize. Just as an apple tree bears fruit if soil, water, and sunlight are in agreeable ranges, humans unfold fruitful social lives by themselves if they have the required time, security, and energy.
The Surgeon General can do his part by calling for a more equal society and a more relaxed work culture that favors time off with friends and family. It’s an easy sell: it’s better for your health.
What do you think is the greatest barrier to social connection in today’s world? Let me know in a comment or email (I always reply). Next week: a society in flux.