Facts So Romantic

Feeling Lonely? There’s an App for That

Loneliness hurts the immune system and stresses the body.

The phone rang; a woman answered. Our awkward opening was brief. “This is my first time,” I said. “I’m not sure how this is supposed to go.” She said she’d be happy to listen.

I’d just pressed a button in an app on my phone. The app’s red screen was cheerful, outdoorsy—there were smiling, hip campers on a mountaintop at sunset. The woman on the other end sounded young, but told me she had a daughter in college and a son, asleep upstairs. I started to talk about the breakup. I told her about the new roommate arriving soon, because my ex didn’t move in. I was calm, curious, and doubtful that I could condense years into 45 minutes. But I’d try. 

She sounded friendly—like a therapist, kind of. But she was not a licensed psychologist or social worker, and didn’t pretend to be. She was just a person making extra money helping strangers. Of the nearly 2,500 “givers” like her, most are freelancers in creative careers—actors, musicians, writers. Some are teachers, or retirees. I was not in crisis—not suicidal, manic, or psychotic—which was good, since this call was not for mental health emergencies. If I’d spoken of suicide or domestic abuse, the stranger would have transferred my call to professionals.

I told the voice about my increasing fear that I might always be drawn to the thrill of the new; ever itchy to avoid commitment. The stranger tried to help.

Everyday alienation is a stealthier killer.

Press a button and you reach a supportive voice. That’s the pitch made by Happy, a new app launching on March 21. It may seem like the latest in a trend of mental health apps—Talkspace, for example, connects patients with therapists by phone, and PRIORI, designed for bipolar patients, tracks the timing and frequency of calls and texts to predict shifts into mania or depression. But Happy’s goal is simpler—and more radical. Its founders want to help everybody who could use a sympathetic ear. The role “givers” play is less therapist, more bartender-without-the-booze. They are peers, not professionals, and the people who call are not typically mentally ill or in extreme distress.

Suicide takes 44,193 American lives a year, but everyday alienation is a stealthier killer. Loneliness is deadlier than diabetes, a 2015 analysis showed, raising the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Psychotherapy access, meanwhile, is often limited to those who can afford it, in communities with less stigma around mental illness. Poor and minority communities tend to go untreated. Plenty of people who aren’t ill also need someone to talk to. Happy hopes to reach them, too. 

Loneliness hurts the immune system and stresses the body, studies show, and appears to be a warning signal to be social. As many as 80 percent of people under the age of 18 report feeling lonely some of the time, a percentage which recedes in midlife but spikes again in old age, according to a 2010 review called “Loneliness Matters.” The chronically lonely include between 15 and 30 percent of the general population. The review’s authors, University of Chicago psychologist Louise Hawkley and neuroscientist John Cacioppo, argued that feeling alone is “tantamount to feeling unsafe”: It spikes stress hormones, raises heart rate and blood pressure, distorts thinking and mood. Feeling socially connected, the data suggest, “serves as a scaffolding for the self,” they write. “Damage the scaffold and the rest of the self begins to crumble.”

This experience is analogous to physical pain, hunger, or thirst: An evolutionary need for human contact ensures that our social species keeps mating and raising our helpless offspring. The health burden is clear. The question is: How useful is a single talk with a stranger, whom the caller may never speak to again? Can a cheery tech service help fight an epidemic of loneliness driven, in part, by social tech?

The answer seems to be yes. 

“I feel that sharing stories, there is something satisfying about it. We need someone to relate to.”

Happy started with a divorce and a barista. Jeremy Fischbach, the New Orleans-based musician, attorney, and entrepreneur who co-founded the app, was suffering the end of his marriage while working a law firm job he didn’t like.

Each day, Fischbach got his coffee at Pulp and Grind, his neighborhood cafe, usually from the same barista, Megan Kosmoski, a chatty theater director who served coffee as her day job. Kosmoski had recently moved from New York, which wore her out, as it does many people, with its fast-paced, career-obsessed rhythm. New Orleans brought her spirits back. When Fischbach came up with his idea, he had Kosmoski in mind. Regulars at Pulp and Grind confided to her about their work stresses and family problems. Fischbach rarely spoke to Kosmoski, but he noticed how open customers were with her. Months later, when he had built the Happy app with the software developer Ely Alvarado, Fischbach approached Kosmoski and told her she’d inspired his app. What’s more, he asked her if she would be willing to be a part. All she’d have to do, when she had time, is talk to strangers about their problems. Just like she already did at the cafe. 

“Dating apps—so often people use them because they need a connection,” Kosmoski told me. “You do it because you’re looking to talk to someone.” Internet dating, she pointed out, used to be stigmatized but is now mainstream. Happy hopes for something similar. “I feel that sharing stories, there is something satisfying about it. We need someone to relate to.” 

Loneliness sends the brain into threat mode. Adrenaline surges, making us hyper-alert, robbing us of sleep, which saps energy and lowers mood. None of us are safe from isolation all of the time. Moving to a new city, starting a job, dating, divorce—even parenting can bring its own isolation, with the 2 a.m. feedings, and new tensions with a spouse. These disruptions can create an acute sense of loss, which can leave people in need of someone to talk to.

Internet social networks are making things worse, Fischbach believes. Last year, University of Pittsburgh doctors surveyed 1,787 adults and found that the quartile who used social media most were significantly more likely to be depressed than those who used it least. The direction of the effect was not clear: Do depressed people hover online or does spending time on Facebook and Twitter depress people? Research continues. Meanwhile, the Happy founders have their hypothesis.

“Social media is empty calories the way eating a box of saltines is empty calories,” Fischbach told me. “If you spend three hours on Facebook and don’t feel supported, you are feeling hungry. It’s the definition of an empty calorie: It’s not filling you up.”

Emotional support, he argues, is a biological need like nutrition and exercise. Sugar, cholesterol, and fat hurt the body and need to be controlled. Diets usually don’t require medical attention, but some metabolic conditions do need a specialist: diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid problems. Similarly, people with chronic mental conditions—clinical depression, ADHD, or bipolar disorder, for example—often need doctors. But the rest of the world is not different, categorically, from the mentally ill in their need for emotional connection.

Data transparency will improve the app’s chance at success.

A 2010 meta-analysis by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues at Brigham Young University found that the influence of loneliness on the risk of death was similar to that of alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, or obesity. The researchers concluded that social support, in a total of 148 studies including 308,849 participants, affects mortality risk just about as well as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, for example. In older people, loneliness also risks mental decline, even dementia, other studies report. Feeling supported, on the other hand, protects people from stress. If you have a life with steady emotional support, whether from a spouse, family, friends, church, or activities, a classic 1979 study found, you are 50 percent more likely to be alive nine years later than someone who is alone.

The loneliness expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad sympathizes with Happy’s mission. As to its chance of success, she offered a note of caution. “There’s some evidence to suggest that talking to a stranger may have some benefit,” she told me, “but not the same as with a close relationship.” A study of 90 women in 1997, for example, found that support from a friend during a stressful public speech lowered blood pressure significantly more than support from a stranger. A later study showed a gender difference: Female support, especially from a female friend, protected both male and female speakers from high blood pressure spikes, while support from men did not.  

Different problems also seem to require different kinds of support. “Like, okay, your wife has kicked you out of the house,” she said. “A friend can let you sleep on their couch, an app can’t.” Professor Holt-Lunstad offered the ambitious startup a challenge. “I hope they are collecting data on this, and analyzing it to see how helpful it is. If they think it’s helpful, can they prove it? If it’s not, make modifications. You can learn: Why is it not? What component is missing? What do we need to tweak?” 

Happy makes no claims of clinical impact. Its founders point out the gap in social support is clear. People who need someone to talk to, but lack access or interest in psychotherapy, due to stigma, might be helped by an app that doesn’t present itself as clinical. Nevertheless, Happy plans to analyze its data, say Fischbach and his co-founder Emily Rosenzweig, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University. “As we grow, we will be rigorously studying Happy’s efficacy,” Fischbach wrote in an email, “hopefully partnering with impartial third parties to help design our methods and analyze the data.” If Happy wants to benefit the most people, Holt-Lunstad says, they’ll make that data public, for peer review. Transparency will improve the app’s chance at success.

The stranger was helpful. By the time we hung up, the restless demon wasn’t gone. But I did see things through a new lens—perhaps one a bit more generous than I deserve. “Sounds like you’re great at finding friends and companions,” she said brightly.

My point had been critical—the decade long trail of ex-girlfriends suggests maybe that I’m not great at finding lasting romance. But she answered with support, absent any criticism or advice. The kinds of women I date—calm, practical, less excitable or volatile than me—she said, seem to balance me. She didn’t think there was any reason to judge myself too harshly for not being ready yet.

By the time I hung up, I felt happier. Why I did was confusing, since this woman knew so little of me or my past, nor I any of hers. But she understood what bothered me enough to offer what most of us, often, need most: a friendly ear at the end of a line.

Taylor Beck is a writer based in Brooklyn. Before writing, he worked in brain imaging labs studying memory, sleep, and aging.

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WATCH: The social psychologist Nicholas Epley considers whether we are strangers to ourselves.

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