Does Capitalism Really Make Us Lonely?

What both the left and the right don't understand


Presume the economic case for free markets is true: that capitalism makes us freer and richer, creates better jobs and greater opportunities, and helps us solve environmental problems. Does it make us happier too?

The American conservative Patrick Deneen believes liberal capitalism makes us "increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves, replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone." Under the exhaustive headline "Neoliberalism—the ideology at the root of all our problems," the British leftist George Monbiot claims that these problems include (but are by no means limited to) "epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia."

Freedom "doesn't make us free, it makes us lonely," adds Christian conservative Joel Halldorf. "Increasing mental illness, isolation and populism are signs that liberalism cannot sustain itself." The leftist economist Noreena Hertz argues that "neoliberalism has made us see ourselves as competitors not collaborators, consumers not citizens, hoarders not sharers, takers not givers, hustlers not helpers."

Such sweeping statements are only very rarely followed by attempts to document any causal link or even a correlation. Surprisingly often, a quick misreading of classical liberals is supposed to be enough to prove the connection between liberalism and greed and loneliness, as if the resistance to forced relationships was based on a resistance to relationships themselves.

Yet classical liberalism does not deny man's need for belonging; it just denies that an outside authority knows which collectives anyone else should belong to. Liberalism is not about finding all life's meaning in a shopping list, it just says that we need more meaning than can be found in a ballot paper and that those who seek the meaning of life in collective projects that they try to enforce on everybody have less of a sense of the beautiful richness and diversity of human nature than the alleged cold and robotic market liberals. Do we need something more than our lonely, individual lives? Of course we do, but what? Can we even find a single collective project that would make Deneen, Hertz, and Halldorf cuddle together in communitarian hygge?

Even then we are still only talking about a small homogeneous group of Western intellectuals who demand a collective political project. What does the collective utopia look like that would fill the empty hearts of such diverse people as Stephen Fry, MrBeast, Elon Musk, Billie Eilish, Roger Federer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Danielle Steel, Richard Dawkins, PewDiePie, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Cave, LeBron James, Larry David, Donald Trump, Kylie Jenner, The Rock, Quentin Tarantino, Posh Spice, Robert Smith, Chris Rock, Blixa Bargeld, Neal Stephenson, Kim Kardashian, Lionel Messi, Johan Norberg, and some 7.9 billion more?

Liberalism does not ignore the meaningful life; it holds that more people have a chance to find meaning if they have the freedom to search for it.

The counterargument is that we just can't—that there is something in the very freedom of choice that makes us selfish and isolated, that it's precisely this individual search for meaning in life that creates the epidemic of loneliness that is sweeping the Western world.

But is there even such an epidemic?

100 Years of Solitude?

Few conditions are more destructive to people's physical and mental well-being than the feeling of being abandoned. Loneliness is an individual misfortune and a major social problem. But most articles about an epidemic of loneliness are in fact about the growing number of single households. That's not the same thing.

Living alone has its downsides, but there is actually no strong association between it and feelings of loneliness or lack of social support. Sweden often tops lists of most single households, but at the same time it is also one of the countries where people say they feel the least loneliness—clearly below the European average and, interestingly, much below the feelings of loneliness in southern Europe, despite their reputation for big families and warmth.

Of course, this could be because Swedes are so introverted that they think a visit to the local shop is sufficient to experience community. But Swedes are also in touch with their friends more often than other Europeans.

The problem with assessing our level of loneliness is that we tend to interpret the difficulties we all experience with relationships and relatives as a sign that such connections have fallen into disrepair and that there must have been a better time or place when we all lived in more harmonious relationships. It may be worth recalling that the most common violent crime in the traditional society of the 19th century was violence against parents (at a time when children often had a legal obligation to care for them), suggesting that an enforced relationship is often a cause of conflict rather than concord.

I often hear the claim that poorer and more collectivist countries have a different and deeper form of community than people who live in urbanized, individualized materialist ones. (I hear this from students in rich countries, that is—I have never heard it said in poor countries.) But when the Gallup World Poll asks people around the world: "If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?" a very different pattern emerges. In African countries, an average of 25 percent answer "no." In South America and Asia, it's about 20 percent. It's around 10 percent in Japan and Taiwan. And it is down to single digits in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In November 2022, I read an article in the Financial Times headlined "Are we ready for the approaching loneliness epidemic?" It claimed "the share of people who report having friends and relatives they can count on has been steadily dropping." Yet when I checked the source, it stated that the average level of people who have someone to count on "is almost unchanged" (at more than 90 percent) and that satisfaction with relationships has actually increased slightly.

After reviewing research in the field, the data visualization project Our World in Data concludes: "There is an epidemic of headlines that claim we are experiencing a 'loneliness epidemic,' but there is no empirical support for the fact that loneliness is increasing." One reason many believe there is an epidemic is that those who say they are most lonely are the young, but this is based on the belief that they will keep feeling just as lonely when they grow up. But as teens grow up, stop feeling they are misunderstood by society, establish friendships and romantic relationships, form families, and have colleagues, their loneliness tends to decrease (until a partner dies late in life, when the feeling of loneliness increases again). So a more relevant question is whether those who are young today are more lonely than those who were young before (and whether older people today are more lonely than older people were back then). The answer seems to be no.

Even though Hertz reports depressing data on the number of people who feel alone, she does not make the case this share has risen over time. Studies following American college students since 1977 show the proportion who state they lack friends and feel left out has decreased somewhat. When researchers compare today's middle-aged and older people with previous generations at the same stage of life in the United States, England, Sweden, Finland, and Germany, they don't find evidence of increased loneliness.

As far as I know, there are no studies looking at whether society has experienced Gabriel García Márquez's 100 years of solitude, but we have at least 75 years of British loneliness studies, and they do not show an increase in the proportion who say they feel lonely. We must also take into consideration that it is probably less stigmatized to talk about feelings of loneliness today than in previous generations.

Swedes have answered questions about social relations since the golden age of collectivism, and their responses show that the feeling of loneliness has diminished since then among younger and older people, men and women. In the early 1980s, more than one in four Swedes stated that they lacked a close friend. Now just over one in 10 do so.

In other words, all these autonomous selves seem to be distinctly social. This should not come as a surprise—after all, we are social beings. So collectivist pressures and political programs are not needed to make us seek and develop contact with other people. Freedom is not about opting out of relationships but about choosing relationships that suit you and match your values.

If you want to feel lonely, you should refrain from fantasizing freely about how your opponents destroy all communities and instead, like the political scientist Caspian Rehbinder, compare data on subjective feelings of loneliness in places with different institutions. This shows the opposite of what critics see as the Achilles' heel of liberalism: Loneliness is reported less where freedom is greater. For every point a country gains on the Cato Institute and Fraser Institute's 10-point scale for personal and economic freedom—in effect, a measure of a country's classical liberalism—loneliness is on average six percentage points lower. Rehbinder also looked at each society's equality of distribution and degree of religiosity, since these are often suggested as remedies to the emptiness of liberalism. He found no connection whatsoever. If we trust the broad simple correlations, it seems we need personal freedom and free markets to remedy the existential isolation that equality and spirituality can't solve; it's not the other way around.

Several indicators of loneliness and isolation did worsen sharply during the pandemic, and it will take a long time until we learn whether this is a temporary dip or a new trend. But this is the predictable result of government-enforced social distancing, when people were commanded to stay at home and kids were not even allowed to meet their classmates. If anything, it is a counterargument to the hypothesis that too much liberty and mobility make us lonely.

There is also no evidence for the large increase in mental illness that many people assume exists (again with the caveat that the pandemic probably worsened these problems, at least temporarily). Hannah Ritchie, lead researcher at the Our World in Data project, writes: "Many (myself included) have the perception that mental health issues have been increasing significantly in recent years. The data…that we have does, in general, not support this conclusion." On the contrary, levels of mental illness appear to have been stable since 1990.

In a review of the literature in the field, four researchers writing in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica found 42 studies from 1990 to 2017 that used the same methodology to examine mental illness in the same geographical area over time. Most of them showed no increase in bad health (although such studies receive less media attention than the few that show an increase), and the overall result pointed to a "minimal" increase that they believe is due to demographic changes. (Globally, the incidence of depression and anxiety is largest among the middle-aged. So as populations age, a bigger share of people is diagnosed with a mental disorder.) The researchers conclude: "We can be rather confident that the overall global prevalence of mental illness has not dramatically increased in recent decades if it has at all."

In a population of 8 billion, there will always be groups of people in certain countries whose physical and mental suffering increase. There are ominous signs of an increase in depression and anxiety in teenage girls in some countries, for example, and in the United States there has been a worrying increase in drug overdoses. But globally, the suicide rate has fallen by about a third over the last 30 years. In Sweden, the suicide rate has halved since 1980.

So why are we so convinced that mental health is deteriorating? One reason is that we have borrowed terminology that was created for clinical health problems to talk about common forms of grief and worry. As many traditional, tangible sources of suffering disappear, the expectation that we should feel good all the time increases; when we don't, we suddenly start talking in psychiatric terms, even though stress and sadness are part of a good life. After observing that the proportion who experience reduced mental well-being is fairly constant while diagnoses and sick leave increase, Christian Rück, a psychiatrist at the Karolinska Institute, concludes that we have confused two different forms of suffering. Some mental pain is simply the abrasions of the soul, says Rück, which are just a part of life, but we have begun to confuse these with the fractures of the soul, which we need help and treatment to deal with.

And there's another change. Previous generations spoke freely about physical ailments, but the mental ones were hidden away and discussed only in a hushed voice. Today, it is much more common to report mental symptoms and to talk about them and seek help, and society and the health care system are more likely to take it seriously. That is a sign of an increasingly healthy society, not a sick one.

Happy Capitalism

So now perhaps we can go back to the original question of whether capitalism really makes us happier. Can money buy happiness?

Yes, you can buy happiness—but only at a very bad exchange rate. Compared to having health, peace of mind, and good relationships, money is not much to write home about. If your mental worry and anxiety for some reason increase by a tenth, you would need to increase your monthly salary by around $20,000 to get back to the same level of happiness that you had before. But one reason why individual income is less important for one's well-being is that most goods, services, and technologies that make a real difference to one's well-being spread quickly in market-based societies, so a few hundred bucks here or there does not make much of a difference to your happiness. The important thing is to live in a rich, free, capitalist society. If you have been lucky enough to be born there, much of your potential for happiness is already fulfilled.

We are not talking about objective indicators here but about what people say regarding their own emotional state. The sources of error are many: Both those who are too depressed and those who have too much excitement in life may not respond to surveys; occasional events play a disproportionately large role in our mood (such as the weather on the day you respond, if you missed the bus that morning, or if you happened to find a coin in the elevator just now); not everyone is honest even in anonymous surveys (the French believe melancholy is a sign of intelligence, and some think Scandinavians have such low expectations of life that they are constantly pleasantly surprised). One has to treat this data with great care. Still, what well-being research suggests is completely opposite to the notion that free markets and individualism suck the joy out of life.

The data indicate that individuals' average happiness grows with their income and the population's average happiness grows with the country's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, and that both of these levels increase on average over time, as people and countries become richer. In Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, people report the highest levels of well-being. In Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, the levels are lowest. The correlation is clear, though not perfect: Latin American countries are happier than their level of prosperity would predict, and former communist countries are unhappier.

The Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven sums up the state of research as "the more individualized society, the happier its citizens are"; the World Values Survey documents that the most important factors behind increased well-being are "global economic growth, widespread democratization, growing tolerance of diversity, and a rising sense of freedom." After devoting an entire book to an alleged happiness crisis, even the British economist Richard Layard admits that "we in the West are probably happier than any previous society."

That people claim to be so satisfied with their lives is in itself a surprise to most people. The British believe that only 47 percent of Brits perceive themselves as very or fairly happy, while as many as 92 percent state that they are very or fairly happy themselves. The result is similar in all 32 countries where the question has been asked. People apparently look more depressed on the outside than they feel on the inside. The underestimate is not small. Canadians and Norwegians are most optimistic about their compatriots and assumed that 60 percent of them were happy. That is actually lower than the self-perceived happiness in the least happy country, Hungary (69 percent).

This makes it incredibly risky to speculate about human well-being without relying on data —particularly when it comes to intellectuals, who (according to many studies) suffer more from anxiety and neuroticism than others. This is often what drives them onward, to create, write, and debate in public. Yet it also makes them even more inclined to underestimate the happiness of others, especially as they really can't comprehend how someone can be happy with the trivialities of everyday life, with unintellectual professions and Taco Tuesday. It also makes them inclined to look for causes of these problems in social structures and in vulgar capitalism. David Hume said of his close friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau that he just happens to be unhappy but tries to blame it on society instead of his own melancholy disposition.

When seen from the inside, capitalism is not as depressing as most intellectuals assume. Veenhoven, who was active in the Dutch Social Democrats when he began to study happiness, first believed government redistribution and generous social spending contributed to the well-being of a population. It is easy to assume this when you tend to find countries like Denmark, Finland, and Sweden near the top of the happiness lists. But as Veenhoven got more statistics, it became clear that other small, rich democracies such as Iceland, Switzerland, and New Zealand, with much smaller welfare states, were also at the top of the rankings. Ireland, the Netherlands, and Australia have about half the social spending as a share of GDP as Belgium, Italy, and France do, but they are significantly happier. Government redistribution has not even succeeded in creating a more equal distribution of well-being. "Happiness is not greater in welfare states," Veenhoven told me. "I was simply wrong."

Another conclusion that surprised Veenhoven was that income inequality does not reduce a country's well-being: "Income inequality is a by-product of capitalist societies and they have such a positive effect on well-being that outbalance the negative effect of being relatively poor." This is not a popular conclusion everywhere: "My colleagues are not amused. Inequality is big business here in the sociology department. Entire careers have been built on it."

There is a strong correlation between economic freedom and subjective well-being, and—contrary to most expectations—it is strongest for low-income earners. The researchers suspect this is due to the fact that free markets introduce autonomy and freedom of choice for those in a more difficult socioeconomic situation: "For high-income earners, this effect is much less important, as their income already gives them the access to more choices." No matter how much critics say we should feel like we are naked and afraid in capitalist societies, people insist on saying that it gives them a sense of control over their lives, at least compared to other systems.

None of this means the problems that critics equate with life in an individualist, capitalist society do not exist. It just means the same problems seem to be even greater in noncapitalist societies. Competition for resources and positions does not disappear because they are distributed politically instead of according to supply and demand. On the contrary, in capitalism we search for opportunities for mutual gain, while in economies based on distribution from the top we begin to see other groups as threats because what they take is something we do not get. It is telling that more than 30 years after the fall of communism, its destructive effects on communities and social trust have not completely faded. Although the gap with other countries is narrowing, it is still in post-communist societies that we find less trust, more loneliness, and less well-being.

The hunt for status is no less brutal because there are fewer arenas in which to compete. If there are many different ways in which people can develop their identity and seek confirmation, more people have a chance to find their path than in a more collectivist society where there is just one true way. It may even apply to our consumption. The philosopher Steven Quartz and the political scientist Anette Asp believe that diversity and freedom of choice help explain the fact that increased inequality has not made us more unhappy: "Social status, which was once hierarchical and zero-sum, has become more fragmented, pluralistic and subjective. The relationship between relative income and relative status, which used to be straightforward, has gotten much more complex."

In poorer societies, consumption is often about showing how high one has climbed on the prosperity ladder. That is why, paradoxically, poor societies have such a large share of consumption of pure luxury products that are sought after precisely because they are expensive. That exists in richer and more individualistic societies too, of course, but there consumption increasingly becomes a way of expressing one's personality. People no longer automatically covet the most expensive item but rather pursue what suits their taste and expresses their identity. Someone dreams of a Porsche; someone else prefers to show his green identity with a Tesla; a third person prefers a cheap and comfortable car, because their status is based on not caring about status when choosing a car; a fourth person talks happily and often about how it is vulgar to have a car when you can get anywhere on a bicycle and public transport. They can all converge in feelings of well-being, even if they diverge in income and taste.

The most important word in economic freedom is not economic but freedom. We are all different with different needs, and our chance of finding relationships, communities, work, and consumption that we enjoy increases if we get the freedom to choose. Not everyone wants to constantly work and strive for material rewards, and one of the advantages of an open society is that you do not have to choose that. Even before the pandemic, surveys in the Western world showed that between 20 percent and 50 percent of workers in recent years had chosen a less demanding job with less pay, reduced their working hours, declined a promotion, or moved to a calmer neighborhood to focus on their family, make everyday life easier, or just unwind with a less stressful life.

If you do not like the rat race, you can leave it—provided you live in a growing economy with high productivity so that you can do it without catastrophic consequences. That is exactly what capitalism makes possible, and that is why the working time of the average worker has decreased by about half in the last 150 years.

In 1870, Britons worked more hours from January through August in an average year than they now do between January and December. We also start working later in life and live for far longer after retirement. That's why you sit here and read and think about the viability of different political and economic systems and their implications for human well-being—a pastime that used to be reserved for a tiny elite with many servants and plenty of free time, or someone who happened to have a generous friend whose family lived off a cotton fortune, as Karl Marx had.

This article is adapted from The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World by permission of Atlantic Books.