If being lonely feels like the end of the world, it might be because in a sense, it is.
According to Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States (2014 to 2017), loneliness is nothing short of an epidemic with major physical and mental consequences: “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.” Loneliness has also been shown to increase the risk of stroke by as much as 32 percent, increase the risk of cancer, warp our genes, and even harm our immune systems.
The topic of loneliness has become more common in public health discussions in recent years as studies have begun to reveal how prevalent and damaging it can be. In 2018, health insurer Cigna conducted a study of more than 20,000 adults ages 18 and older to explore the impact of loneliness in the United States. They used a 20-item questionnaire to assess an individual’s subjective feelings of loneliness (how individuals perceive their level of connectedness to others) as well as their social isolation (the objective absence of relationships and contact with others). The findings? American adults are lonely:
- Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
- Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
- Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
The Science of Solitude
Loneliness has been shown to trigger the body’s natural stress response. One theory suggests that humans subconsciously recognize loneliness and social isolation as a threat. This raises cortisol levels and engages the “fight or flight” response. To be clear, stress can be a good thing, but prolonged periods of stress, i.e., in the case of chronic loneliness, have been shown to lead to inflammation which can damage various systems in the body and lead to higher incidences of cancer and diabetes.
Being around familiar relationships provides a feeling of safety and security that reduces this response. Additionally, having support is crucial for dealing with problems that can lead to other issues. If an individual is having a tough day at work, for example, confiding in a loved one has been shown to be an effective way to control stress on the body as well as to manage problems such as anxiety and depression.
The Solution to Separateness
Much like the obesity epidemic, the loneliness epidemic appears to be growing. In the past 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. While there are a number of theories as to why loneliness is on the rise—including the explosion of social media and the dispersal of the core family unit—here are a few suggestions to combat loneliness in your life:
- Prioritize your social health. Social connection is just as important to your health as diet, physical activity and sleep. Think about the habits and disciplines you have established for taking care of the other aspects of your health, then apply them to your social health. For example, if you get up early to go to the gym, consider getting up early to grab breakfast with a friend. If you plan meals for the week, plan who you are going to spend quality time with or call that week.
- Chose quality over quantity. You can have a broad network and still feel lonely. A key component of loneliness is the feeling that you’re not close to someone, you don’t have someone who understands you or that your relationships are not meaningful. If you feel this to be true about yourself – even if you have a big network – prioritize establishing a deeper, more meaningful relationship with one or two people in your life.
- Create new relations. What are the things you enjoy doing? Reading? Working out? Giving back to the community? Whatever you currently do, search for communities of people that are doing that thing. You would be surprised at the different organizations and communities of people you can find that are involved in the things you already enjoy!
- Limit your social media intake. Researchers agree that excessive social media use exacerbates the feelings of loneliness despite the notion that it connects us to more people. Additionally, a study published in December 2018 by the University of Pennsylvania found that students who limited social media intake to 30 minutes a day for three weeks “had significant reductions in loneliness and depression as compared to a control group that made no changes to their social media diet.”
- Work for greater social connection in your current network. Not all interaction is created equally. When possible, spend time with people instead of texting them. If you can’t spend time with them, a phone call will go further in developing a sense of intimacy than a text message. At work, if you need to get a question answered, go talk to your co-worker instead of sending an email.
Just like eating a balanced diet and working out, maintaining close relationships is a core part of staying healthy. With loneliness on the rise, it’s more important than ever to prioritize your social health.