The Cost of Incognizance: How Loneliness Affects Productivity

Vidhi Dhoot and Esha Gupta, winners of the international Harvard College Economics Review x Dear Loneliness Competition, explore the economic effects of loneliness.


Loneliness refers to a state of aloneness emerging from perceived social isolation resulting in feelings of negativity, unwantedness, and at times, depression. Countless studies show widespread loneliness affecting people across all age groups and communities. While the impact of loneliness on one’s health, relationships and behavior is well known, the economic impact is less talked about. This paper attempts to study the correlation between extreme or recurring feelings of loneliness on one’s productivity during work or education. It studies the working class of people with a focus on those between the ages of 18-24. It aims to study how acute loneliness can act as an impairment in one’s work life, and whether one’s work culture is adhesive to the increasing levels of loneliness. It also aims to study whether mass loneliness across students and employees can have an impact on the performance of the institution or business organization. Primary research with 130 participants between the ages 18-24 shows that 40.8% have often felt loneliness, 42.3% claim to be voluntarily socially isolated, 19.2% are involuntarily socially isolated whereas 25.4% have never experienced either. 56.1% claim that their loneliness tends to impact their level of productivity, either sometimes or often. Finally, this paper aims to understand the different methods that can be employed to reduce this impact on productivity.


Do Economists underrate the value of human interaction?

- Edward L. Glaeser

A study carried out by the University of Manchester, Brunel University London, and the University of Exeter highlighted that 40% of the youth between the ages of 16 and 24 experience loneliness often or very often. Similarly, in a research project conducted by the British Red Cross, 9 million adults in the UK claimed to have recurring feelings of loneliness – of which, 4 million were senior citizens.

Loneliness is a feeling emerging from perceived social isolation and disconnect from those around us. Here, the word “perceived” is of utmost importance since loneliness can also be widely felt by those in either romantic and/ or platonic relationships. It is often found that one may be accompanied by others, whose company they may or may not enjoy, and yet, experience loneliness.

Loneliness is generally termed as subjective since one cannot affix a concrete measure to determine it as its causes and impact vary based on numerous factors including social, environmental, personality & behavioural amongst others. When experienced as an extreme or recurring feeling, loneliness tends to have a massive impact on one’s life – in their relationships, will to self-motivate, productivity, and more. This essay aims to study the impact of loneliness on one’s productivity by asking two major research questions:

1. What is the impact of loneliness on productivity and is it a big enough "epidemic" to have economic repercussions to the individual themselves, and the business/ country?

2. Is increasing loneliness among people leading us to a society threatened by an increasing number of hikikomori?


American psychologist John Cacioppo references the desire or need for social company back to the days of the hunter-gatherers when those early humans would be disadvantaged if separated from the group. A similar perception or outlook can be observed in the present day as well. Humans, being social animals possess an intrinsic need for attention. A study conducted by psychologist John Gottman indicates a crucial relation between this need for positive attention and physical wellbeing, especially as a result of social relationships. When one experiences a lack of this attention, it deposits feelings of aloneness and disconnection – and thus, loneliness in them.

While studies show older people at a higher risk of being lonely, recent studies have shown an increasing tilt in its results. As per a survey conducted by the Community Life Survey, UK’s Office for National Statistics in 2016-2017, young adults in England between the ages of 16-24 report higher levels of loneliness than the older generations. Further, surveys conducted by Cigna, a health insurance provider, indicate a 13% rise in loneliness between 2018 and 2020. Why people feel lonely can be accredited to a large number of reasons with one of the main causes lying in the paradox of easier communication, today. Social factors tend to be ascribed as one of the leading factors of loneliness. Some of the major causes of loneliness can be listed as such:

1. Social Factors: People who are unable to fit in with their peers and acquaintances, or may not be able to cope with situations they often find themselves in because of their personality or behavioural tendencies are at a high risk of loneliness. Our research evinces that social factors such as “Disconnection/ Lack of belonging/ Not being understood” (27%) and “Personality (Introversion/ Social Awkwardness)” (9%) are some of the major reasons why people feel lonely. Many individuals who find themselves unable to fit in with their peers often endure an idealistic version of life, which results in loneliness if it does not materialise.

2. Relationships: Humans have a high need for attention, affection and an attachment with other people. When such a relationship terminates, or if one finds themselves in an abusive or emotionally non-existent relationship, it can lead to elevated levels of loneliness. 16% of our respondents feel lonely due to being in untrustworthy relationships. The inability to communicate one’s feelings with a loved one, or a lack of communication in a relationship can often manifest into feelings of loneliness. 9% of our respondents accredit their loneliness to such insufficient communication.

3. Cultural: Studies across countries and age groups have found certain communities and demographics to be more susceptible to being lonely. For instance, international students from Asian countries may find themselves unable to adjust to western cultures due to the difference in their collectivist and individualistic cultures. 5% of our respondents experience loneliness due to the difficulty of adjusting to new cultures, and being away from the comfort of their home.

4. Internet: Ever since the “internet generation” began in the early 2000s, the levels of loneliness have also risen. While the internet provides people with an easier mode of communication, it is leading people – especially, those belonging to the younger generations, to replace real-life human contacts with those available online. In fact, in some cases, it goes as far as people resorting to “internet friends” or a friendship that exists only over the internet with a person one may only know through their screen. The internet also makes it indefinitely easier for one to draw comparisons between themselves and other people leading to a lack of fulfillment in one’s own life and higher levels of loneliness.

5. Personal Experiences: One’s personal experiences, such as incidents from the past and the decisions they make can be attributed as another reason for why they feel lonely. As per our survey, 12% of the respondents attribute their loneliness to these reasons. Mental health issues, predominantly depression, and social anxiety are two other major reasons because of which people feel lonely. Low self-esteem and self-confidence lead to substantive inhibition in an individual (18% in our research) in a social situation, leading to feelings of loneliness.


Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States cites workplace loneliness as a growing health epidemic, while a study conducted by Gallup’s Well-being: The Five Essential Elements exemplifies that workplace loneliness is increasing. The study illustrates that those employees who claimed to have a “best friend” at work (30% of the respondents) were seven times more likely to be engaged during the work day, whereas those who did not have a close relationship at work were 1/12th as likely to be engaged with their co-workers. As loneliness cannot be defined as a disposition, but an emotional response and feeling one harbours based on the adequacy and quality of their social relationships, a subordinate engagement can exacerbate workplace loneliness (Barsade & Ozcelik, 2011).

A study conducted by Hakan Ozcelik, College of Business Administration and Signal Barsade, Wharton School of Business juxtaposes that the alienation lonely people experience due to inadequate engagement with their colleagues elicits attentional deficits and relational withdrawal in them, leading to a poorer performance than their non-lonely counterparts.

Loneliness at the Workplace Related to Attentional Deficits

Lonely people are more liable to fear being stigmatised, (Jones, 1982) and perceive social situations as threatening, leading to a higher self-evaluation of their behaviour. Their behaviour and responses become increasingly hypervigilant, (Cacioppo and Hawkley, 2009) which is found to lead to a depreciated ability to self-regulate their behaviour, thoughts, and feelings to self-motivate themselves to achieve their goals that makes them vulnerable to attentional, confirmatory and memory biases (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009: 451). This ca