“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved” — Mother Teresa
At the beginning of May 2023, Mental Health awareness month, the US Surgeon, General Dr. Vivek Murthy, released an 85-page advisory declaring that a “loneliness epidemic” has settled like a malaise into the bones of American society. His report concludes that Americans have become increasingly lonely and isolated and that this lack of social connection is having profoundly negative effects on our mental and physical health. Moreover, he compared the health impacts of loneliness to smoking more than a dozen cigarettes a day.
Typically, an advisory from the US Surgeon General is reserved for a public health challenge or crisis that requires immediate attention. What’s interesting about this report, apart from the fact that it’s raising alarm bells around a very important issue, is that it’s the first time the US Department of Health and Human Services has highlighted issues of loneliness and its impact on both our psychological and physical health.
However, with nearly everyone experiencing loneliness at some point in their lives, we have to ask: Has being lonely ever killed anyone?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Loneliness can lead to death. The “Rat Park” experiments of the early ’70s, though conducted to better understand drug addiction, also granted the medical community insight into just how devastating the effects of loneliness and isolation can be on highly social beings. Further studies have suggested that loneliness takes a grave toll on our health, and the US Surgeon General’s report further underscores the issue. Loneliness can lead to chronic stress, which in turn causes inflammation that damages tissues and blood vessels, potentially leading to the development of chronic conditions.
“Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.” — Psychology Today
What’s even more alarming is the fact that the loneliness epidemic is actually spreading. Public polls and other research show that Americans who have become less engaged with community organizations, churches, or even their own family members have reported an increase in feelings of loneliness. Things took a turn for the worse in the wake of COVID-19, as people struggled with lockdown protocols, work isolationism, and health and safety guidelines that limited the time people could spend around their friends and family.
According to the Pew Research Center, four in ten US adults have experienced high levels of psychological distress at least once since the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. This particularly affected ages 18 through 29, with young adults reporting a declining number of hours spent with friends and family. Social media actually seldom alleviated feelings of loneliness. In fact, it did quite the opposite for some: frequent social media use during the pandemic increased emotional loneliness among youth.
So, loneliness is bad for us. But is there any cure for this pervasive epidemic that, while largely unacknowledged, continues to spread, leaving behind devastating health consequences, such as a 29% increased risk of heart disease and about a 50% increased risk of dementia? Fortunately, there is a cure, and the US Surgeon General has offered a few guidelines in his report.
Dr. Murthy suggests that you reconnect with people by taking 15 minutes each day to contact a friend or a relative, stating that relationships can’t thrive unless nurtured and those brief, in-person interactions can aid in the production of feel-good chemicals in our bodies. Also, it’s a good idea to put away your phone while talking to someone face-to-face — put the device down and give your conversation partner your full, undivided attention. Focus on the conversation; listening is perhaps more important than speaking.
The US Surgeon General also suggests scaling down on social media because the virtual connection isn’t a replacement for in-person time with the people we love, cherish, and respect. We’ve evolved, over thousands of years, to understand not only what people say but how they say it, both verbally and non-verbally. Those subtle cues can’t be communicated via text messages, and we lose a lot when communicating electronically.
Another great way to fend off feelings of loneliness is to join a community. Volunteering is one of many activities that can ease feelings of loneliness, so you should consider donating some of your free time to an organization in your community or offering to help friends or family with some of their projects. It’s only when we experience a connection with other human beings that we realize the value that we bring to the world. Here are some organizations that might benefit from your assistance:
- Habitat for Humanity: Building affordable housing for those in need.
- American Red Cross: Providing disaster relief, blood donations, health and safety training, and support to military families.
- Meals on Wheels: Delivering nutritious meals to seniors and people with disabilities who aren’t able to prepare their own food.
And lastly, if you’re struggling with loneliness, don’t be afraid to tell someone — a friend, a relative, or even a healthcare provider. Simply telling someone and acknowledging the problem can help shed some of its burdens and set you on a path of healing so that you can mend eroded connections and establish new ones with fellow humans.
“Don’t feel alone because there is always someone out there who loves you more than you can imagine.” — Anurag Prakash Ray