Loneliness, the Enduring Epidemic
What is loneliness?
Loneliness has been described as social pain. Lonely people feel they have inadequate human contact. Loneliness is a negative state of mind. Simply put, loneliness is what people feel when they don't have any friendships, or don't have enough rewarding friendships. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted.
Because loneliness is actually a state of mind, people may experience loneliness even when surrounded by many people, and even with many friends, if they don't feel the right connection to these people. As humans, the relationships we form with other people are vital to our mental and emotional well-being and even our survival.
Humans have an inherent desire to be close to other people — to connect and build relationships. Although marriage may be a cure for loneliness for some, in other cases the marriage may lack emotional intimacy and actually contribute to loneliness.
Loneliness happens on a continuum. It isn't all or none. Some people are desperately lonely, lonely enough that it interferes with their entire life. Others are busy and keeping up with all of their responsibilities, and may even interact regularly with some friends, but at the end of the day they still feel an emptiness, and feel that their relationships aren't satisfying, or aren't satisfying enough. And others have many satisfying relationships but still feel a need for more social interaction.
How prevalent is loneliness?
Unfortunately, loneliness seems to be a growing epidemic. A report published last year from Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel “serious loneliness.” The number of people reporting no friends has quadrupled in recent years, and the number reporting 3 or fewer friends has increased by 20%.
It is important to notice that these numbers reinforce that loneliness occurs on a spectrum: some reporting "no friends", and others reporting "3 or fewer friends". Some report "serious loneliness" and others report "less serious loneliness".
Why has loneliness increased?
All of the factors leading to loneliness are not known at this time. However, here are some of the most obvious issues.
Estrangements between family members are increasing, with about 1 out of 4 people reporting being estranged from at least one family member, according to a recently completed 10 year study.
Older people have less friends than younger people, as a general rule.
Starting in the mid-20s, peoples social circle begins to shrink, according to a collaborative study involving Aalto University in Finland and the University of Oxford in England.
As people focus on careers, and raising families, friends take lower priority.
The workplace does not offer the amount of socialization opportunities as high school or college.
Marriage, which may alleviate loneliness, is at the lowest level since the Government began keeping records in 1867, and people that do marry are doing so at a later age.
10-20% of younger people still report frequent loneliness even though they tend to have more friends than older people. These percentages have been increasing, even pre-pandemic, for unclear reasons. The rise of social media has been implicated in this, but there is no clear evidence at this time.
Why is loneliness important?
A number of unfavorable outcomes have been linked to loneliness. In addition to its association with depressive symptoms and other forms of mental illness, loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and arthritis, among other diseases. Lonely people are also twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to published research.
The state of chronic loneliness may do its damage by triggering adverse physiological responses leading to the increased production of stress hormones including cortisol, which hinders sleep, and results in weakened immunity. All of this increases inflammation in the body, which can contribute to heart disease and other chronic health conditions.
Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University in a meta-analysis involving over 300,000 people found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships. In fact, she found social isolation is twice as harmful as obesity and as lethal as alcoholism!
Her colleague Dr Timothy Smith said:
‘This effect is not isolated to older adults. Relationships provide a level of protection across all ages. ‘We take relationships for granted as humans – we’re like fish that don’t notice the water. That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health.
“Humans need others to survive,” Holt-Lunstad said recently. “Regardless of one’s sex, country or culture of origin, or age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival.”
Are the dangers of loneliness well known?
The dangers of loneliness are not a secret. In fact, the New York Times, on March 25th, 2009 quoted “loneliness leads to poorer physical and mental health”. On April 20, 2022 the New York Times said "Even before the pandemic, there was an 'epidemic of loneliness,' and it was affecting physical health and life expectancy." Similarly, BBC News on January 31st, 2011 pronounced loneliness as a “hidden killer” of the elderly. On June 21, 2022 they said "Loneliness is linked to poor mental and physical health". On June 28th they added "loneliness was now a bigger health risk than smoking or obesity." The Independent, 2 months ago reported on The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's (William and Kate) effort to launch a national campaign to fight loneliness.
The dangers of loneliness are well known, and many experts are working hard to fight this epidemic, but unfortunately, this information isn't getting out to the public.
What can we do about the loneliness epidemic?
If you are anywhere on the loneliness spectrum, anywhere from just wanting a little more social interaction, or desperately lonely, the cure is the same. You must take action. The treatment for all levels of loneliness is making and developing friendships.
But you will have to take the action. You can't wait for others to reach out to you. In this life, some people plan and invite, and others don't. You must become a person who plans social interactions and invites others. Some people will reject your efforts, but some will accept.
Where do you start?
1) If you are estranged from any family members, start there. Even if these family members don't live near you, reach out to them and restart your relationship with them. There are some family members that you wouldn't want to reconcile with, for obvious reasons, but please reconcile with all other family members, if it is in your power to do so.
Siblings and parents often provide wonderful companionship, and they know you better than anybody. Don't forget cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents! Often times the psychological and spiritual strength that comes from strengthened family ties boosts your confidence enough to help you form relationships with others. Reconciling with family members, when you are able to do so, is an important step in your quest to overcome loneliness.
2) Next, are there friends you have lost contact with? Friends that you were close to at one time, but your paths went separate ways? You may want to reach out to some of these people and rekindle the relationship. In some cases there were valid reasons why you parted ways. Do those factors still exist? Perhaps your old friend just did not have time for you after they had babies. If their kids are now grown and gone, they may be reeling from the effects of 'empty nest' and anxious to hear from an old friend like you.
3) Do you need to find some new friends? Here are some excellent ways to make new connections.
Join and attend a Church. You will meet many people with whom you have much in common. Often Church's have socials that provide more opportunities to get to know the people you attend Church with and to forge friendships. Churches often sponsor work projects and men in particular should look for service projects to participate in, as many men seem to form friendships easier while working together.
Volunteer for any cause that you care about. You can read to the kids at the library. Help out at the Food Bank or Homeless Shelter. Work at the local Animal Rescue. Join a disaster relief organization. Red Cross provides valuable training to their volunteers. Help out at the Senior Center. Drive frail elderly people to doctors appointments. Justserve.org has lists of volunteer opportunities. If you volunteer, you will be helping out, and meeting new people that care about the same things you care about.
Join a group that relates to your interests, hobbies or vocation. Most communities have hiking groups that you can join. There are Book Clubs. Enroll in a yoga class. Join the Lions Club or Elks Lodge. Toastmasters Clubs are fun and educational. There are local Ham Radio groups. There are lot's of groups online. Choose a group and attend at least 3 meetings. Strike up conversations with other attendees by asking them questions.
There are many apps designed to connect people and promote social relationships: Yubo, Wink, Peanut (for moms to meet other moms), Bumble BFF, Meetup, and many, many more. I punched in my zip code on Meetup.com and saw several meetings in my very rural area. A book club (5 attendees), a group of bird watchers (7 attendees) and a discussion group about Tiny Homes (19 attendees). By virtue of the fact that these groups are on Meetup.com, they are literally advertising for new people to attend. Go and meet some people!
After you meet some new people,
what is the next step?
When you meet people, there are several things you want to do. First is to remember their name. Everybody likes to be remembered by name. I remember a nice gentleman at our Church many years ago who feigned interest in our children. He would ask their name and shake their hand and tell them how happy he was to meet them. But the very next Sunday, he would ask their name again. He obviously had no real interest. Remembering names is essential!
Second, ask people questions about themselves, and about things they know about. Show a genuine interest in them. You will have many positive and pleasant conversations and will learn a lot about your new acquaintance and the subjects they are knowledgeable about.
Take the third step: After you have met some people, learned their names and had some conversations with them, invite them to do something. Meet up for lunch or dinner, have them over to your house for a barbecue or ??? Issue an invitation, and see where it goes.
These steps may feel uncomfortable to you, but they will work! To overcome loneliness, you need to step outside of your comfort zone. As you do these things, your life will improve as will the lives of those you develop friendships with.
What about me?
I'm not lonely, but I would like to help!
What can I do?
Are you estranged from any family member? Reconcile ASAP, if possible. These estranged family members may be lonely and need you in their life.
Have you looked around you, at work, at Church, and at the groups you belong to for people that don't seem connected?
Have you reached out to these people with an invitation? Their shyness may prevent them from issuing an invitation that might be quite easy for you to issue.
Do you routinely reach out to new people at Church or other groups with an invitation? Again, it is generally easier for established people to reach out to new people, than it is for new people to issue invitations to established members of any group.
Have you considered the friends you have drifted away from to ensure it was mutual, based on changing interests, etc., and not benign neglect on your part?
When you reach out to others, inevitably your life is enriched and you may cure an unrecognized loneliness in your own life you did not know you had. When we do the right thing, it is generally a WIN-WIN situation, and your own life will be better as you reach out to others.
We're all in this together. We all have similar needs of being connected with others. Let's make sure everybody's needs are being met.
Take care and BE HEALTHY!