- Why do we feel so lonely?
- How we talk to each other for work and for play isn’t helping
- We can be our own worst enemy
- Feeling lonely? Do these things
- Why do people feel lonely?
- How normal is it to feel lonely?
- Disability, illness and loneliness.
- When do people feel lonely?
- How do you manage loneliness?
- Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Loneliness
- Health risks
- Loneliness and older people
- Loneliness and people of all ages
- Loneliness and families
- Loneliness and disabled people
- You’re Not Alone—There Really Is a Loneliness Epidemic
- Thank you!
- Why Are So Many People Struggling With Loneliness?
- Can Feeling Lonely Really Be Fatal?
- Millennials: The Loneliest Generation
- Why Are We So Lonely?
- Modern Ways to Avoid Isolation
- Can Robots Cure Loneliness?
- Reducing Dependence on Today’s Technology
- How to Make Friends Without Social Media
- Learn More About Avoiding Loneliness
Why do we feel so lonely?
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat.
Email, text, instant messages, cellphone calls.
There are more ways than ever to connect with others — yet many of us know the hollow ache of loneliness.
Loneliness isn’t constrained by age, gender, marital status or job title. CEOs feel it. So do cubicle dwellers. As do new moms, granddads, recent college grads and elementary school students.
Even royalty isn’t immune. Duchess Kate of Cambridge said in April that she has felt lonely and isolated as a mother.
And yes, some of those Facebook friends who continually post photos of bar outings and extended family gatherings may be quite lonely, too.
More: Nobody likes to admit being lonely, but you should
The prevalence of loneliness “is surprisingly high,” says John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who has studied the topic extensively.
Loneliness can have negative effects on one’s mental and physical health. (May is Mental Health Month.) As a society, we’ve put increased emphasis on emotional well-being, yet loneliness remains a major issue. Last week, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on the effect of isolation and loneliness. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, “The consequences of isolation and loneliness are severe — negative health outcomes, higher health care costs and even death.”
In 2015, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, one of President Obama’s appointees who was recently asked to step down, pointed out the health dangers that can come from “isolation, lack of meaning and a loss of self-worth.”
What is loneliness, exactly? Most of us have felt it in some form or another. It’s the feeling that arises when there is a gap between social interactions you want and reality. It’s feeling separated, even alienated, and can last for a short stretch or a prolonged period of time. It’s important to note that you can feel lonely “even when you are around other people,” Cacioppo says.
Loneliness is an issue that spans all age groups in one way or another. In newly released data, the U.K.’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says that in the past year, it counseled nearly 4,100 children and teens who grappled with loneliness. Some who needed help were as young as 6.
“I’ve thought about ending my life because I think it’s pointless me being here,” said one anonymous 15-year-old in a transcript provided by the NSPCC. “I don’t feel like anyone cares about me, and I’m lonely all the time.”
A 16-year-old said, “I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere, and I have no friends. I hate being this unhappy, but I can’t control it. I feel so alone. Whenever I think about the future, I get scared that I’ll always be by myself because I’m not good-looking or funny enough.”
That scary future of loneliness is a reality for many older adults. Almost half of Americans age 62 and up experience some degree of loneliness, according to a new AARP Foundation survey. Two in 10 say their loneliness is frequent.
How we talk to each other for work and for play isn’t helping
Our workload and work style can contribute to feelings of loneliness, says Jennifer Caudle, an osteopathic family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Many of us pull long days, and after we leave, we look at email, read reports and review presentations rather than fully connect with friends and family. Nearly half of U.S. workers check email after they leave work, and 45% work during non-business hours, according to a CareerBuilder survey in 2016.
“Work does not stop anymore, it is always there for us,” says Caudle, who notes that those working remotely from others can also feel isolated.
On days when she does’t interact with students or patients, Caudle says she can feel it.
“I can go all day and not communicate with a person directly,” she says. “I‘m on my computer all day long, and sometimes at the end of the day, even though I’ve been productive, I feel a little empty.”
Technology and social media can play a part. We are increasingly adopting digital devices, and social media use has skyrocketed.
Though these tools can be helpful, digital communication often lacks the connection-building nuances that come with face-to-face interactions, says the University of Chicago’s Cacioppo.
“You don’t see their facial expressions,” he says. “You don’t hear their tone of voice.”
Even with Skype and FaceTime, “there are so many missing cues,” Cacioppo says.
“Elder orphans” band together for support and advice
Pope Talks Social Media, Culture of Loneliness
We can be our own worst enemy
Risk factors for perceived or actual social isolation include living alone, being unmarried and having few friends, says Brigham Young University psychology and neuroscience professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad.
Other factors include chronic health conditions and mobility impairments.
Lonely people can automatically put up their guard, which in turn can make it difficult to establish those longed-for connections, Cacioppo says.
“When you feel isolated, you feel as if there is no one who you can trust,” he says. “The brain goes into self-preservation mode.”
The stigma that can come with admitting to loneliness means that we sometimes struggle silently. “Nobody wants to say, ‘Hey, I’m lonely,’” says Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer of AARP Services.
If a lonely person does find a helpful resource, he or she isn’t likely to share it with others who could use it, she says, since that would mean admitting to feeling lonely in the first place.
Feeling lonely? Do these things
Pick up the phone and call someone. Go outside and take a walk. Spend more time interacting with others in person vs. on social media. There is no one answer — it can be complicated to address loneliness — but some small, proactive steps can help you feel better. If you feel your loneliness is severe and negatively impacting your mental health, there are places to go:
- Need immediate help? Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741.
- The Department of Health and Human Services offers resources to find assistance.
- Visit AARP’s Connect2Affect.org, which is designed to build awareness about social isolation.
- Psychology Today offers these tips to combat loneliness.
Why do people feel lonely?
Because loneliness is so common, it makes sense that there are also lots and lots of different reasons why people feel lonely. Here are a few of the main ones:
- Technology. Ever felt like even though all your friends are one tap of a button away, you’re still not really connected to them? Don’t worry: this is a very common feeling. Even though the internet can bring us closer, it can also make us feel like we’re not really talking to our friends, and can leave us feeling lost and alone.
- Not fitting in. Maybe you have different interests to the people at your school. Maybe they think the things that you love are strange. Or maybe you just dress differently. In any case, feeling like you don’t fit can make the symptoms of loneliness even worse, and can mean it’s even more difficult to meet friends and feel connected.
- Looking after a parent or sibling. Being the primary carer for someone close to you who is sick or has a disability can often make you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. After all, a lot of your friends won’t know what it’s like to have a brother with Down’s syndrome, or a mother with bipolar, so being a carer can leave you feeling like you can’t really talk to people – let alone have them over for dinner or a sleepover.
How normal is it to feel lonely?
A study that came out last year showed that 82% of Australians think loneliness is getting more and more common.
So just because you’re feeling lonely, it doesn’t mean that you are different or ‘weird’: in fact, it means that you have more in common with the people around you than you realise.
Disability, illness and loneliness.
Sometimes loneliness can be a symptom of something else going on in our lives, like illness or disability. Here are some of the main issues that loneliness can often be a symptom of:
- Mental illness. A lot of mental illnesses like bipolar, anxiety and depression can all make people feel very lonely. Mental illness can make you anxious about seeing others, so you might spend more time indoors. Or it can lead to insomnia, which in turn can make you tired, irritable and lonely.
- Physical disability. A range of physical disabilities, from hearing loss to blindness, can often make people feel as though there is no one around them that cares. These feelings can get even worse if people in public are unkind or rude, and facing daily discrimination can make loneliness even harder to bear.
- Racism. People who encounter racism say that being discriminated against can make them feel alone, and can make it harder for them to form real connections. Racism takes a lot of forms, all of them hurtful, so sometimes even a ‘minor’ or ‘casual’ act of racism can have big impacts on someone’s self-esteem.
When do people feel lonely?
Loneliness can hit anyone at any time. Sometimes you might not even feel lonely for an obvious reason, and what you’re experiencing could always be connected to other things like depression or anxiety.
But it’s true that a lot of people tend to feel lonely during big life events. Maybe you’re moving house. Maybe your parents are getting separated. Maybe you’re going from primary school into high school. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve outgrown your friendship group, or that they’re starting to get into things that don’t really interest you.
All of these things could be making you feel lonely and lost, and you might find it hard to connect with people around you.
How do you manage loneliness?
There’s no one single way to fight loneliness: if there was, everybody would be using it! But that doesn’t mean that loneliness is impossible to beat, or that if you’re feeling it now you will be forever. Here are a few quick dot points that cover some of the ways you can start feeling more at peace with the people in your life:
- Talk to people about how you feel
- Think about your interests
- Get a pet
- Get online
- Join a club
For more information on these steps, head over to ReachOut’s step-by-step guide for fighting loneliness that you can find here.
Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Loneliness
Short-term bouts of loneliness can occur to many people at some point in their lives. These types of feelings are typically brief and not considered chronic. However, when feelings of loneliness and isolation worsen and continue long-term, there may be more serious signs and symptoms to be aware of and steps you can take to help deal with chronic loneliness.
What is chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness occurs when feelings of loneliness and uncomfortable social isolation go on for a long period of time. It’s characterized by constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level. It can also be accompanied by deeply rooted feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, and self-loathing.1
Ongoing loneliness can afflict even the most seemingly outgoing person. Being the “life of the party” doesn’t necessarily exclude someone from being chronically lonely. This type of chronic, or long-term loneliness, can eventually impact all areas of your life.
What are the main signs and symptoms of chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness symptoms and signs can differ depending on who you are and your situation. If you consistently feel some or all of the following, you may be dealing with chronic loneliness:
- Inability to connect with others on a deeper, more intimate level. Maybe you have friends and family in your life, but engagement with them is at a very surface level. Your interaction doesn’t feel connected in a way that is fulfilling and this disconnection seems never ending.
- No close or “best” friends. You have friends, but they are casual friends or acquaintances and you feel you can find no one who truly “gets” you.
- Overwhelming feeling of isolation regardless of where you are and who’s around. You can be at a party surrounded by dozens of people and, yet, you feel isolated, separate, and disengaged. At work, you may feel alienated and alone. Same on a bus, train, or walking down a busy street. It’s as if you’re in your own unbreakable bubble.
- Negative feelings of self-doubt and self-worth. Does it feel like you are always less than enough? These feelings–long-term–are another possible symptom of chronic loneliness.
- When you try to connect or reach out, it’s not reciprocated, and you’re not seen or heard.
- Exhaustion and burn out when trying to engage socially. If you’re dealing with chronic loneliness, trying to engage and be social with others can leave you feeling exhausted. Continued feelings of being drained can lead to other issues like sleep problems, a weakened immune system, poor diet, and more.
Can chronic loneliness lead to health problems?
Long-term feelings of loneliness can affect your health in many ways. For example, chronic loneliness can drive up cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that your body creates when under stress. Over time, higher cortisol levels can lead to inflammation, excess weight gain, insulin resistance, problems concentrating, and more.2
If left unchecked, these chronic loneliness symptoms can put you at greater risk for more serious medical and emotional problems, including:3
- Sleep disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Mental health and emotional problems
- Substance use
There is even the possibility that chronic loneliness and the health risks that come with it, could shorten one’s lifespan.4
If you think you are suffering with long-term feelings of loneliness, talk to your doctor or a therapist.
What does chronic loneliness do to your brain?
Research shows that chronic loneliness can have a significant impact on your overall health, including your brain health. Some studies even suggest that there may be a link between loneliness and an increased risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.5
Long term feelings of loneliness and social isolation can also reduce cognitive skills6, such as the ability to concentrate, make decisions, problem-solve, and even change negative self-beliefs. And it can ultimately lead to depression.7
Who’s most at risk for chronic loneliness?
Chronic, or long-term, loneliness can afflict all types of people. It’s easy to assume that someone who’s naturally shy and introverted might be most at risk, but outgoing, Type A, personalities can also suffer from chronic loneliness, even though they may appear to be the life of the party. This type of loneliness is not exclusive to any one personality type.
For some people chronic loneliness may become a side effect of a medical or emotional problem, including those dealing with the following issues:
- Substance use
- Depression and bipolar disorder
- Serious illness or disease
- Some mild forms of autism, such as Asperger’s Syndrome
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s
- Sexual orientation issues
All of these issues could also lead to long-term feelings of loneliness and isolation. Make sure your doctor, therapist, or other medical provider knows how you’re feeling emotionally.
What are some tips for dealing with chronic loneliness?
If you are dealing with feelings of loneliness that just don’t go away, consider these tips:
- Talk to your doctor, a therapist, or another health care professional. Chronic loneliness isn’t limited to feelings of social isolation and alienation from others. It is often tied to ongoing and deeply rooted negative beliefs about yourself that can eventually lead to other medical and emotional problems. Let someone know what’s going on.
- Engage with other people in a positive, healthy way. Even though it may be difficult, try making the effort to connect with others. Volunteering, hobby clubs, workout groups, and other opportunities, can help boost self-esteem and provide a safe and satisfying way to connect with others.
- Get some exercise and sunlight. Getting active and out in the sunshine can help elevate endorphins and serotonin.8, 9 These “brain hormones” can boost mood, help improve sleep, and make people feel happier.
- Find a support group, especially if chronic loneliness is a side effect of some other issue you might be dealing with, such as substance use, loss of a loved one, loneliness from a divorce or break up, a chronic and isolating illness, etc. Receiving support and encouragement from others who may share similar feelings, could help ease symptoms of chronic loneliness.
If you are dealing with long term loneliness, the kind that doesn’t go away, talk to your doctor or another health care provider so they can help. Chronic loneliness is not just about feeling alone; if left unchecked it can put you at risk for serious physical and emotional issues.
Loneliness is seen by many as one of the largest health concerns we face. Why? Here are the the facts.
- Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
- Loneliness is worse for you than obesity. (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
- Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression. (Valtorta et al, 2016) (James et al, 2011) (Cacioppo et al, 2006)
- Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 29% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
Loneliness and older people
- The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years (Age UK 2018, All The Lonely People)
- There are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK (Age UK 2016, No-one should have no one).
- Half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all (Age UK 2016, No-one should have no one).
- Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (Office for National Statistics 2010. General Lifestyle Survey 2008).
- Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age, U.K., 2014. Evidence Review: Loneliness in Later Life. London: Age UK).
- There are over 2.2 million people aged 75 and over living alone in Great Britain, an increase of almost a quarter (24%) over the past 20 years (ONS).
Loneliness and people of all ages
- A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely.
- Research commissioned by Eden Project initiative The Big Lunch found that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year.
Loneliness and families
- A survey by Action for Children found that 43% of 17 – 25 year olds who used their service had experienced problems with loneliness, and that of this same group less than half said they felt loved.
- Action for Children have also reported 24% of parents surveyed said they were always or often lonely.
Loneliness and disabled people
- Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day.
You’re Not Alone—There Really Is a Loneliness Epidemic
Photo: Getty Images/Arman Zhenikeyev
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time alone. This is partly because I’m a freelance writer, which means I usually work by myself. But although I’m outgoing and active, and have a good number of friends, I’ve found myself alone most weeknights and a good chunk of the weekends. And sometimes, that loneliness can feel overwhelming.
It made me wonder: How many other people are feeling lonely too?
A whole lot, it turns out. A 2018 Cigna study of 20,000 Americans found that most people consider themselves “lonely,” based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a widely adopted academic measure used to gauge loneliness. Nearly half of those people reported feeling alone or left out, while more than 40 percent of said they feel as though they lack companionship, that their relationships are not meaningful, and that they’re isolated from others.
Married adults are less likely to be lonely, while those who are divorced, separated, or single tend to be lonelier-which isn’t all that surprising. But the survey also found that retired folks are less likely to feel lonely than students, which goes against conventional wisdom that loneliness is just an “old person’s” problem.
What Is Loneliness?
First of all, let’s get clear on what loneliness really means. “Feeling lonely is the sense of not feeling connected to others,” says Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., a counselor and Talkspace therapist. (Related: The Best Therapy and Mental Health Apps)
The (sort of) good news: It’s completely normal. “Loneliness is pretty common, and most people will experience periods of loneliness,” says O’Neill. Although it’s usually temporary and gets better once you connect with supportive friends and family, some people may experience ongoing struggles to feel connected and may experience chronic feelings of loneliness, she notes.
And here’s one of the strangest things about loneliness: While you can feel it when you’re alone, you don’t have to be alone to experience loneliness. “You can be in a room with one hundred other people and still feel lonely,” explains Jodi J. De Luca, Ph.D., a psychologist at Erie Colorado Counseling. In other words, it’s a subjective emotion, based on one’s personal feelings and beliefs. (Related: Lady Gaga Gets Real About Loneliness In Her New Netflix Documentary)
Interestingly, loneliness is actually a defense mechanism. “Loneliness developed as an evolutionary adaptation to signal you to seek out tribes,” explains Kathleen deVos, a holistic therapist in San Francisco. In our hunter-gatherer times, if you were alone, it meant you weren’t protected from the elements of nature or predators, and it also meant you wouldn’t be able to procreate. So, just as a feeling of pain warns you to remove your hand from a hot stovetop, a feeling of loneliness warns you to seek out community, she says.
Why Are We Lonelier Than Ever?
Sure, it’s easy to point to social media as a culprit of isolated lives, but all the blame can’t be on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, the Cigna study found that social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; people who were considered “very heavy users” of social media scored almost the same on the loneliness scale as those who never use social media.
That being said, social media probably hasn’t benefited your feeling of isolation. As O’Neill points out, social media can be a double-edged sword. “In some ways, social media can help facilitate connections with others-for example, meeting friends and acquaintances who share common interests,” she says.
In other cases, however, it can increase feelings of loneliness. “Over the past three decades, the reported experience of loneliness in the U.S. skyrocketed with the advent of the internet,” says De Luca. And for those people who are already feeling alone, it can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, says O’Neill. You know, like when you’re bored at home alone, open Instagram, are bombarded with evidence of others having fun, and think to yourself (in the words of Mindy Kaling), Is everyone hanging out without me??
As Megan Bruneau, a therapist and life coach in New York City, describes it, social media invites us to “compare and despair” whenever we log in. “We don’t see the hard times on our friends’ Instagrams,” she explains. “We’re only seeing our friends’ partners and babies-not the fights or the late nights.” Even though we’re all aware that social media usually only depicts “highlight reels” of people’s lives, it can be a lot harder to remember that when you’re feeling down and alone.
However, social media is part of a bigger problem. Advancements in technology have made it easier to avoid communication and basic human contact in general, adds deVos. These days, you can get everything-coffee, groceries, dinner-delivered right to your door, or stream fitness classes into your living room, without ever coming in touch with another person. Sure, this is great in terms of accessibility and flexibility, but when it comes at the price of human connection, you have to take a step back-or rather, out of your house.
You should also make sure to not let your phone trick you into thinking you’re getting your emotional needs met, says deVos. The “likes” and comments-even the conversations you have online-aren’t necessarily “fake,” but they’re really just an illusion of connection. “You need to see people’s facial movements, hear their voices, and have face-to-face talks in order to really reap the benefits of your relationships,” says Bruneau.
Finally, some of people go through life changes that invite loneliness, says Bruneau. Whether it’s moving to a new city, going through a breakup or divorce, or losing a loved one, we all will go through tough times when loneliness is simply part of a process of adjusting to a new normal.
How You Can Feel Less Alone
The good news: There are some steps you can take to feel more connected and less alone, even in a culture that prizes screen time over face time.
Accept your feelings of loneliness. As a reminder, it’s okay-and perfectly normal-to feel lonely. Unfortunately, society pathologizes loneliness, which can lead you to feel shame about it, says Bruneau. Plus, with research studies citing that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is even more dangerous than obesity, it can make you feel not only lonely and down-but stressed about your mortality on top of it. (Research even shows loneliness can make your cold symptoms feel worse.)
Instead of thinking you’re weird for feeling lonely, try to get comfortable with it. “Don’t judge yourself for it, and try not to resent it,” says Bruneau. And know that it will pass-like other emotions in life, it’s impermanent. “The best thing you can do when you’re feeling lonely is change that inner voice to give yourself compassion instead of criticism.” (Related: These Three Little Words Are Making You a Negative Person-and You Probably Say Them All the Time)
Be okay with being bored. Next time you feel lonely, try this experiment: Put your phone, tablet, or computer down, and spend time with yourself. “Social media provides a time filler and distraction where you used to have that time to connect to your own thoughts and feelings, tap into your creative selves, and connect with others,” says Dori Gatter, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and relationship expert. “Let your mind wander, let yourself feel bored. Feeling bored is a gateway to creativity and connection to self.”
Reach out. Yep, you knew this was coming. Ultimately, it’s in your control to instill a sense of connection in your life. And thanks to technology’s positive effects, you can easily do so. Send a Facebook message or text to someone you haven’t reached out to in a while letting them know you’re thinking of them, suggests Bruneau. “Or sign up for a rec team, book club, improv, or Meetup group.” There are also online support groups, such as Campfire, as well as friend apps, like Bumble BFF. (Related: Joining an Online Support Group Could Help You Finally Meet Your Goals)
Curate your social media feeds. Stop following any accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or lonely. Instead, choose to only follow accounts and hashtags that offer content that’s positive, inspirational, and real, says Bruneau. Look for mental health professionals who offer help and advice on their platforms, too.
Stop those negative thought cycles. “What you think, how you feel, and how you talk to yourself is directly related to your behavior and overall well-being,” says De Luca. Stop and think about what you’re feeling when you get lonely, and try to switch out those critical, negative thoughts for positive ones. “Positive self-statements will also assist in decreasing anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness-ultimately improving your overall well-being,” she says. (Related: How to Use Positive Self-Talk to Improve All Your Relationships)
Be of service to others. “Volunteering for a cause you feel strongly about offers a double shot of connection and meaning,” says Bruneau. It’s as simple as Googling “volunteer opportunities” and perusing what comes up in your area.
Talk to a professional. If you’ve been struggling with loneliness for quite some time, consider talking to a mental health professional, says O’Neill. “Sometimes just having a nonjudgmental, supportive presence to speak with can help decrease those symptoms of isolation.” (Here’s how to get started with finding the right therapist for you.)
- By Locke Hughes @LockeVictoria
Thanks to remarkable new technologies and the widespread use of social media, we are more “connected” than ever before. Yet as a nation, we are also more lonely. In fact, a recent study found that a staggering 47 percent of Americans often feel alone, left out and lacking meaningful connection with others. This is true for all ages, from teenagers to older adults.
The number of people who perceive themselves to be alone, isolated or distant from others has reached epidemic levels both in the United States and in other parts of the world. Indeed, almost two decades ago, the book Bowling Alone pointed to the increasing isolation of Americans and our consequent loss of “social capital.” In Japan, for example, an estimated half million (known as hikikomori) shut themselves away for months on end. In the United Kingdom, four in 10 citizens report feelings of chronic, profound loneliness, prompting the creation of a new cabinet-level position (the Minister for Loneliness) to combat the problem.
While this “epidemic” of loneliness is increasingly recognized as a social issue, what’s less well recognized is the role loneliness plays as a critical determinant of health. Loneliness can be deadly: this according to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, among others, who has stressed the significant health threat. Loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes per day. A recent study revealed a surprising association between loneliness and cancer mortality risk, pointing to the role loneliness plays in cancer’s course, including responsiveness to treatments.
Biologists have shown that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that in turn are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infection and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. There’s even evidence that this perceived sense of social isolation accelerates cognitive and functional decline and can serve as a preclinical sign for Alzheimer’s disease.
It has long been recognized that social support—through the availability of nutritious food, safe housing and job opportunities—positively influences mental and physical health. Studies have repeatedly shown that those with fewer social connections have the highest mortality rates, highlighting that social isolation can threaten health through lack of access to clinical care, social services or needed support.
However, how the subjective sense of loneliness (experienced by many even while surrounded by others) is a threat to health, may be less intuitive. It is important to recognize that feelings of social cohesion, mutual trust and respect, within one’s community and among different sections of society, are all crucial to well-being. Perhaps this is especially so at a time of great social polarization exacerbated by contentious politics and vitriolic TV news.
These new statistics underscore the urgent need to address this “epidemic” of alienation and despair and to increase social support. For the first time in the U.S., life expectancy is declining, while the numbers of “deaths of despair” (from suicide, drugs and alcohol abuse), especially among white males, is on the rise. The chances of dying from an opioid overdose or suicide are now higher than the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident.
So what can be done to combat widespread loneliness and anomie? The good news is there are models of success already in place in the U.S. and across the world. Programs such as Meals on Wheels and help-lines that arrange phone calls between volunteers and the lonely—whether they be older adults or teens in crisis—offer direct social support to those feeling profoundly isolated. Intergenerational initiatives, like the dementia-friendly villages in the Netherlands, the Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle, and global home-sharing programs offer unique opportunities for the elderly to make meaningful connections with children and young adults.
Community engagement programs such as improvisational workshops at Chicago’s Second City aim to tackle social anxiety and feelings of isolation through laughter. And policy initiatives such as the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric project, New York’s Age-Friendly and England’s National Health Service provide strategic assistance—encouraging patients to engage in social activities rather than resorting to prescription drugs. And certainly information technology can be part of the solution as well: apps to “increase sociability” are being developed to combat loneliness. We have good models. We must prioritize further investment.
But perhaps, equally important, each of us can reach out to someone who may be lonely: the senior next door who never has visitors, the homeless person who feels invisible, or the mother overwhelmed with the responsibility of a new baby. By making a simple human connection, we can save a life.
Health and well-being are profoundly social. Ironically, in today’s hyperconnected world, we must tackle head-on the growing public health crisis of loneliness if we’re to become a healthier nation.
Much has been written about America’s loneliness epidemic, including in the workplace. But the word “loneliness” in the work context is a misnomer. It doesn’t capture the whole story. What about all the individuals who might not think of themselves as lonely and yet the demands of work and task-oriented activities such as time in front of screens have crowded out time for anything more than superficial relationships? Many people lack sufficient, positive human connection (or social connection) and may be unaware of the ramifications. Left unchecked, the deficiency of connection today presents widespread risks not just to individuals but to organizations.
From a biological standpoint, social connection is a primal human need. Its presence appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance. In contrast, studies have shown that “disconnection” is unhealthy for individuals:
- Loneliness is associated with poorer cognitive performance, including poorer executive function and social cognition.
- Loneliness may impair executive control and self-regulation, including with respect to greater smoking and alcohol consumption.
- Social disconnectedness is related to lower levels of self-rated physical health.
- Loneliness is associated with substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.
Given these findings, it follows that researchers found greater employee loneliness leads to poorer task, team role and relational performance. One might assume that the higher up the organization you go, the more connected you feel, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Research reported in Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs report feeling lonely and 61 percent of them believed it hindered their performance.
Prevalence of Social Disconnection
A considerable amount of evidence suggests that social disconnection is prevalent today. Based on its research findings, CIGNA reported data in 2018 that chronic loneliness in America has reached epidemic levels. This is consistent with an earlier analysis on the potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness.
Looking forward, it would appear that over the next decade the workforce may become even more disconnected. Since 2011, research on adolescents has found they spend more time interacting with electronic devices and less time interacting with each other, while also experiencing declining well-being. As artificial intelligence further increases the presence and role of machines in people’s day-to-day lives, an unintended consequence is that it may diminish people’s ability to connect.
The Role of Chronic Stress
Why is social disconnection problematic in the workplace? In answering this question one ought to address the topic of stress. While it is a term we often hear, it is difficult to fully comprehend the far-reaching psychological and physiological consequences associated with stress.
In measured amounts, stress serves to ready the nervous system for the task at hand. Here, odd as it sounds, stress can be a good thing. However, as Ted George, MD, of the National Institutes of Health describes in his book Untangling the Mind, stress can have negative effects. With increasing levels of stress, the nervous system processes the stress as a threat; and in extreme circumstances, stress moves the individual from being guided by rational thought processes to the instinctual responses characterized as “fight,” “flight” and “shutdown.”
When people experience chronic stress, they don’t feel well and often resort to ingesting substances or engaging in behaviors that provide temporary relief. The danger is that this may lead to developing addiction. In a review of 83 studies on addiction with at least 500 subjects, Sussman et al. (2011) found that nearly half the adult U.S. population suffers from one or more addictions that have “serious negative consequences.” The addictions studied included substance addictions (alcohol, eating disorders, mood-altering legal and illegal drugs, and tobacco) and process addictions (dependence upon busyness and work, exercise, gambling, online gaming or social media, shopping, love and sex).
One of the best-known means to cope with stress is to increase positive social connections. Being in an environment that fosters supportive relationships and human connection serves to stabilize the responses of the nervous system, preventing it from processing the stressor as a threat.
Cultures of Connection
UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes social connection as a “superpower” that makes individuals smarter, happier and more productive. Leaders at all levels of an organization would be wise to assess workplace culture through the lens of connection. Are attitudes, uses of language and behaviors drawing people together and connecting them? Or are they creating a stressful and/or relationally-toxic environment that pushes people apart?
In our research we found that cultures of connection are best for individual well-being and for helping organizations thrive too. Specifically, cultures of connection convey several performance advantages upon organizations including higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, superior decision-making, greater innovation and more adaptability to cope with rapid change taking place in the world today. These advantages add up to a powerful competitive advantage.
World’s Best Hospital Has Connection in its DNA
The power of connection is on full display at Mayo Clinic, America’s top-ranked hospital and arguably the best hospital in the world. From the time of its founding in 1889, Mayo Clinic has been intentional about cultivating connection and community. Dr. Charlie Mayo, one of the earliest leaders, communicated an attitude that valued connection and warned about the dangers of isolation when he stated: “Our failures as a profession are the failures of individualism, the result of competitive medicine. It must be done by collective effort.”
One of the ways this is manifest is in Mayo Clinic’s practice of compensating physicians through paying a salary rather than by an activity-based system. Not only does this promote collaboration for the good of the patient but it also alleviates the financial and time pressure of trying to see too many patients in a day, which often serves to diminish the physician-patient connection.
Mayo Clinic’s stated mission and values point to being guided by the intent of its founders, the original Mayo physicians and Sisters of St. Francis. Mayo Clinic’s mission is “To inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research” (italics mine). The language used to describe its values includes the following:
- “Compassion … patients and family members with sensitivity and empathy,”
- “Healing the well-being of the whole person, respecting physical, emotional and spiritual needs,”
- “Teamwork the contributions of all, blending the skills of individual staff members in unsurpassed collaboration,”
- “Innovation the organization, enhancing the lives of those we serve, through the creative ideas and unique talents of each employee,” and
- “Excellence the best outcomes and highest quality service through the dedicated effort of every team member.”
Notice that words and phrases that reflect and enhance connection are woven throughout: sensitivity, empathy, treating the whole person (including emotional and spiritual needs), teamwork, blending skills of the team, unsurpassed collaboration, each employee and every team member.
Mayo Clinic’s belief in the importance of connection goes beyond attitudes and language to practical steps taken to see that connection is infused in the culture. Mayo Clinic’s onboarding process for physicians and scientists includes extensive training in professionalism and communications, and assessments to help them develop emotional intelligence which is instrumental to connecting with others. Physician leaders are selected, developed and assessed based on their ability to connect, which includes listening, engaging, developing and leading other physicians. Informal opportunities for connection among colleagues is encouraged by providing dedicated meeting areas for physicians to gather in.
Mayo Clinic’s intentionality and commitment is evident in a program called COMPASS (COlleagues Meeting to Promote and Sustain Satisfaction). Under this initiative, self-formed groups of 6-10 physicians get together for about an hour every other week, usually over breakfast or lunch, with up to $20 provided to each participant to cover the meal cost. During the meal, physicians spend at least 15 minutes focused on discussing assigned issues related to the physician experience, such as resiliency, medical mistakes, work-life balance and meaning at work. Mayo Clinic’s research has found that participants in COMPASS experience statistically significant improvements in multiple domains of wellbeing and satisfaction that will help reduce the risk of physician burnout and reduce medical errors.
What Leaders Can Do
Every organization would be wise to develop a culture of connection. Consider the U.S. Navy when Admiral Vernon Clark of Chief of Naval Operations, the connection culture of Costco, which Forbes and Statista research has consistently recognized as among the best large company employers in America, or the connection culture Alan Mually cultivated when he led the turnaround of Ford Motor Company.
Our current epidemic of social disconnection has arisen from multiple avenues including loneliness, social isolation, and the busyness and increased screen time of modern life crowding out time for face-to-face human connection. Social disconnection is making people more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. After one considers the prevalence and effects of social disconnection throughout an organization, it can be argued that social disconnection presents a systemic risk.
Connection matters. Organizations should be intentional about developing and sustaining cultures of connection that provide the structures and needed psychosocial support to foster inclusion and teamwork, minimize stress and reduce error— all of which will promote superior organizational outcomes. The net benefit amounts to better employee and organizational health, resilience and performance.
Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” (read the abstract here) and “Fired Up or Burned Out.” To receive a 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters of “Connection Culture,” and Stallard’s monthly email newsletter at no cost, sign up here.
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To the Editor:
I agree with Arthur C. Brooks that feelings of loneliness are becoming more consuming with each generation. As a 16-year-old member of Generation Z, I have often had these feelings of loneliness even though there are many wonderful people in my life. I am not an isolated case; this is a recurring feeling with my peers as well.
I agree that individuals flock to social media to feel a sense of community, but I think that social media itself was the catalyst for this disconnect from the real world. By creating a pseudo-sense of belonging in online groups, perhaps we are more sensitive to the lack of social fulfillment in our offline relationships. Having our eyes glued to our phones instead of observing the people and places around us is obstructing the search for that “Fremont” in our lives.
San Jose, Calif.
To the Editor:
Mr. Brooks, you can’t create that hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling without making a significant investment of time. As Scott Sanders expressed in his book “Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World,” only by spending season after season in a place can you move from being a resident to becoming a steward.
After a decade and a half of travel, I came home a stranger in a strange land and committed to relearning the place. While friends swapped jobs and states every two years, my husband and I have chosen to stay put for almost 20 years — to, in Ben Sasse’s words, “intentionally invest in the places where we actually live.”
We’ve served on community boards, eaten local because the chefs are friends, watched neighbors’ children and puppies grow, filled our walls with pieces from local artists. It has not been glamorous (we live in the now-famed swamp city much mocked in the show “The Good Place”). We’re often jealous of our more light-footed friends.
But the novelty of a new ZIP code won’t produce long-term satisfaction. As our children enter high school, it brings me great joy to see them treasured by people who have known them all their lives. Even better, my kids know how to treasure people and places.
And novelty isn’t hard to find. We visit our itinerant friends in each new locale. They will inevitably share, after a glass of wine, how badly they want to come home.
Why Are So Many People Struggling With Loneliness?
Nearly everyone feels lonely at some point in their life. Whether it’s the result of being away from friends and family or if it occurs at the end of a relationship, loneliness is a seemingly inevitable aspect of the human experience.
And while it’s OK to feel alone from time to time, recent research reveals that loneliness can be lethal. Pair this news with reports that people in the US are experiencing more loneliness than ever before, and it’s clear that America’s isolation epidemic could lead to a lot of lost lives.
Can Feeling Lonely Really Be Fatal?
It can be hard to believe that loneliness leads to death, yet that’s exactly what a recent report by the American Psychological Association found. Here’s how it happens: Persistent loneliness causes stress, which increases the body’s production of a protein called fibrinogen. An excessive amount of fibrinogen can clog arteries, increase blood pressure, and make people more susceptible to heart attacks. In fact, loneliness has been proven to have as much of an impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more deadly than obesity.
Millennials: The Loneliest Generation
Millennials are especially at risk of experiencing social isolation according to recent data from YouGov, which found that members of Generation Y have far fewer relationships than their forebears: 30% of respondents said they didn’t have a best friend; 27% said they had few close friends; 22% said they had no friends at all, and an astonishing 25% said they didn’t even have any acquaintances.
Why Are We So Lonely?
So what’s at the source of all this solitude? A recent study points the finger at social media. For all of the ways Facebook, Instagram, and other apps help humanity, that same technology is also undermining our ability to lead fulfilling lives. Yet, ironically, some people are attempting to assuage their isolation by further embracing digital devices.
Modern Ways to Avoid Isolation
Traditionally, people have found it possible to feel less alone by reading, exercising, or engaging in creative activities. Many members of modern society, however, are looking toward more tech-centric solutions.
Take, for instance, RentAFriend, an online platform that allows isolated individuals to pay locals for platonic companionship. Then there’s Carenote, a service that connects elderly Americans with friendly Filipinos who (for a modest monthly fee) will regularly call and text solitary seniors. And in Asia, elderly members of Japanese society are buying social robots as a means to cope with their loneliness. But are robotic roommates actually effective enough to stave off solitude?
Can Robots Cure Loneliness?
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by Sherry Turkle by Sherry Turkle
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In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, author Sherry Turkle highlights society’s unhealthy relationship with social media and explains how such platforms can disconnect individuals instead of uniting them. As far as robots are concerned, Turkle details how bonding with today’s increasingly lifelike machines may alleviate feelings of loneliness, but certain people may eventually begin to prefer mechanical companions to their own friends and family members. After all, maintaining a relationship with a machine requires far less effort compared to the needs of their human counterparts, and modern robots never get upset, seek revenge, or grow bored with their owners.
As robots become more advanced, they’re increasingly likely to replace our relationships rather than enhance them. Turkle explains how this may lead some individuals to become so emotionally attached to their computerized companions that they could feel heartbroken when their machine inevitably breaks down.
Similar to social media, social robots ostensibly enrich our lives yet, in reality, they have the potential to increase feelings of isolation. Therefore, Turkle suggests that members of modern society back away from today’s technology, and instead reconnect with others on a more human level. And she’s far from the only author to suggest that lonely people could benefit from a digital detox.
Reducing Dependence on Today’s Technology
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by Cal Newport by Cal Newport
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In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, author Cal Newport explains how increased exposure to social media leads to higher levels of loneliness. To undo the ill effects of today’s tech, he outlines several methods readers can use to regain their focus and feel better about themselves by disconnecting from digital devices.
Newport notes that thousands of years of evolution have primed us to maintain intricate social lives — not to text, tweet, and tap thumbs-up icons while staring at a screen. He further explains how hashtags and emojis aren’t equivalent to meaningful human interactions and such forms of communication shouldn’t be considered alternatives to face-to-face conversations. In order to feel less alone, Newport advocates deleting social media apps, scheduling certain times to send text messages, and opting for in-person interactions as often as possible.
How to Make Friends Without Social Media
A December 2018 study published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology found that reducing time spent on social media decreases loneliness and depression. But in a world where billions of people are constantly connected to online platforms, it’s can be easy to fall victim to FOMO even after mere minutes away from a smartphone. Yet despite the dominance of social media, there are still ways to learn how to meet new people that don’t involve scrolling or swiping on a screen.
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Time and How to Spend It
by James Wallman by James Wallman
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In Time and How to Spend It: The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days, author James Wallman explains how today’s multitude of media platforms are vying for our attention, and he draws on scientific research to help people make better decisions about how to occupy their free time. This includes a checklist readers can use to make new friends while spending time in beneficial ways.
Few people enjoy feeling isolated, Wallman notes, but by embracing activities that foster connections with others, it’s possible to avoid the potentially fatal effects of loneliness. He explains how the key to making new friends is finding fresh ways to connect with other people, which generally involves engaging in interesting activities and going on exciting adventures. This could include signing up for a recreational sports league or joining a group that loves to play board games. No matter what your interests are, there are almost certainly some like-minded individuals eager to accept you into their circle.
Begin by thinking about what activities you like to do, and then conduct some research to discover whether there’s a local group you can join. If you like to go cycling, for instance, there’s bound to be a biking group in your area. If, on the other hand, you prefer to read, find a nearby book club or create one of your own. You could also get more involved with your community to help plan local events or otherwise create a positive difference. And don’t forget that nonsocial experiences such as meditating, writing, and painting, can also reduce feelings of isolation.
Learn More About Avoiding Loneliness
If you’re feeling lonely, social media might be the reason why. The good news is that it’s possible to avoid the ill effects of today’s technology by following the recommendations of today’s leading authors.
To discover how you can make the most of your time and live a satisfying life without relying on social media, launch the Blinkist app to explore any of the aforementioned books or the thousands of other titles in our ever-expanding library.
The word “loner” generally conjures up images of a social pariah — a person who voluntarily removes themselves from a community and lacks the skills or desire to connect with anyone. Yet in reality, deep feelings of loneliness are not reserved for outcasts. The holidays in particular can be a painful time for a lot of people, especially people who feel disconnected from family. But the holidays are by no means the only time that people feel blue. In fact, research suggests most people in America crave more meaningful social interactions.
Let’s look at the numbers: The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. One in four people have no confidantes at all. Zero. To make things worse, 75 percent of people say that they’re unsatisfied with the friendships that they do have, according to a 2013 study. Meanwhile religious service attendance is on the decline. New ways to gather in community can be hard to find.
The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. One in four people have no confidantes at all.
This level of disconnection is dangerous to our health. Loneliness has been alleged to have the same impact on our life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with a risk factor that rivals excessive drinking or obesity. In addition, a lack of social contact can hasten cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, depression and suicide. This leads to a huge uptick in medical bills — the AARP recently reported that isolation among older adults accounts for $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.
Yet of all age groups, Generation Z — anyone ranging in age from 18 to 22 — seems to be particularly impacted. According to a recent study conducted by Cigna, Gen Z is significantly more likely than any other age group to say that they experience feelings that are associated with loneliness; 68 percent said they feel like “no one really knows them well.” Cigna gave Gen Z a “loneliness” score of 48.3 out of 80. This is in contrast to the so-called Greatest Generation — people over 72 — which has the lowest loneliness score of 38.6 (also out of 80).
I’m a millennial — a generation including anyone born between 1981 and 1996 — which comes in around the middle, 45.3. We are not quite as lonely as Gen Z, but we are lonelier than Baby Boomers.
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As the Beatles once asked, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Personally, I think they come from a lack of in-person opportunities for young people to connect with each other in meaningful ways.
Members of the scientific community agree. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, notes that it’s “critical that have spaces where they can connect face-to-face to form meaningful relationships.” This claim is confirmed by results from the study: 88 percent of those who have daily in-person interactions say their overall health and mental health is good, very good or excellent. Only around half of those who never have in-person interactions say the same.
David T. Hsu, a social scientist and the author of “Untethered,” agrees. He proposes in the study that solving Americans’ increasing sense of isolation requires “advocates for the most isolated among us; passionate community-builders from every sector; entrepreneurs obsessed with building new and refurbished solutions for this age-old problem; visionary funders to advance the agenda; artists and storytellers with a gift for continually revealing our condition.”
Following Hsu’s advice, I came up with a simple solution. I created The Joy List, a weekly newsletter of events that New Yorkers can go to by themselves, and leave with a new friend. Our mission is to make New York City less lonely.
This issue is a personal one for me. I wish I’d had The Joy List when I moved to New York. While I’m an outgoing person who’s perfectly comfortable talking to strangers, I didn’t have any deep connections after a few months in this huge, new metropolis. I had some casual friendships, but I didn’t feel like anyone really understood who I was. They didn’t know what I was struggling with, and weren’t offering to support me in any way.
Like a lot of Americans, I was feeling lonely. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t meeting enough people — it was because I wasn’t in spaces that prioritized deep connection. The newsletter has helped me change this. Now, instead of feeling ashamed that I couldn’t find deeper connections, I have a whole group close friends I am proud to call my “chosen family.”
But my newsletter is only one small example of a growing community of groups — online and off — that are working to achieve similar goals. One of the first communities I joined was “Personal Development Nerds,” a group dedicated to learning various ways to improve ourselves. We gather to discuss topics ranging from streamlining our workflow to making deeper friendships and finding workouts that we actually enjoy. PDN consists of an online community, a monthly event and social gatherings that range from group co-working to picnics and movie nights. “It’s like a lighthouse for driven, like-minded individuals,” Juvoni Beckford, the group’s leader, told me.
While I don’t align with some of the group’s primary passions — like Crossfit, fasting and Gary Vaynerchuck — we all share the same desire to grow as people. That is more than enough to spark interesting conversations. At this point, I see my fellow Personal Development Nerds at least one a week. I even joined a co-working space with a group of them. There is just enough structure to keep the group clearly defined without forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. We were brought together by the intention of one person, then empowered to take its growth into our own hands.
Don’t just wait for someone to invite you to an event. Instead, take the time and energy to bring a group together.
Other groups in New York have made a similar impact. For example, “Medi Club” is a monthly event for people who are interested in meditation and meeting like-minded people. Its members have also self-organized volunteering trips, a choir, a diversity committee and mentorship for community leaders. And there are so many others. The Get Down is a twice-monthly dance party with DJ Tasha Blank that aims to bring together people who want to boogie without inhibition — or safety concerns. The Get Down’s strong culture of consent, presence and self-expression brings regulars back more consistently than any other party that I’ve experienced.
If attending huge events feels overwhelming, you can also start small. “You can have a community of three or four people,” says Juvoni Beckford of PDN. “Just surround yourself with people who have varying perspectives. That will help you become more understanding and empathetic.” Beckford also recommends trying to be proactive. Don’t just wait for someone to invite you to an event. Instead, take the time and energy to bring a group together.
In her essay “Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me,” Roxane Gay eloquently articulates why in-person gatherings are crucial for reducing loneliness. “So many of us are reaching out,” she writes, “hoping someone out there will grab our hands and remind us that we are not as alone as we fear.”
We can’t actually hold more than two hands at once. But creating a space to connect? That’s about as close as you can get.
Despite the world’s population creeping upward by around 200,000 people a day, many of us have never felt as alone.
We are more connected than ever before, yet we somehow feel more isolated. We have the ability to reconnect with our high-school classmates and talk to our heroes on social media, yet we feel that we have less intimate connections than the generation before us. And it’s not just a nagging feeling in the back of our minds—it’s affecting our physical health, too. The news headlines speak for themselves: “Chronic loneliness is a modern-day epidemic.” “Loneliness is a public-health threat.” “Widespread loneliness is killing people and we need to start talking about it.”
But our social lives aren’t the only place we experience loneliness. We are also spending more time working than we have in previous decades—especially in the US. All those extra hours spent around our colleagues should help us foster closer relationships. But when you arguably spend more time with your workmates than your own family, why can the office sometimes still feel so isolating?
BYU psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad is one of the world’s leading researchers on social connection. Her research has uncovered some alarming facts about what isolation can do to both your body and mind. For example, one of her most shocking findings was that extreme social isolation holds the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (So much for “social smoking,” right?)
In this interview, Holt-Lundstad holds our hand through some sobering statistics—but also suggests how to overcome this social phenomenon with a smile. Some of the things discussed include:
- How a lack of social connection is bad for your physical health, not just your mental health
- The way contemporary economics is contributing to the loneliness epidemic
- Which generation is the most lonely
- The country that doesn’t schedule meetings after 4pm so that people can go home to their families on time
- How lunchtime could be the perfect vehicle for combatting the blues
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Quartz: Loneliness means different things to different people. For some people it’s a lack of social interaction, whereas others can have plenty of social interaction but feel that it is meaningless, and they’re therefore also lonely. Is there a clinical definition of loneliness?
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: It’s important to clarify that definition. People use social isolation and loneliness interchangeably. Social isolation is thought to be the objective indicator of a lack of social connection, in that it refers to only a few—if any—relationships and infrequent social contact. Whereas loneliness is thought to be a subjective indicator of feeling alone. Of course, it’s a distressing feeling either way.
We can be lonely but not alone, and we can be alone but not lonely.
Others have argued that it is the discrepancy between one’s desired level of connection and one’s actual level of connection. That desired level may make a very stanch leap between different people: We can be lonely but not alone, and we can be alone but not lonely. We need to recognize that just because someone may still have others around them, they still can be profoundly lonely. But we also need to recognize the even if someone is isolating themselves and doing so by choice, she might not feel lonely.
However, they are still at risk. Even if you feel that you don’t need it, that does not necessarily mean that your body—from a biological human factor—doesn’t need it. It’s a primal need.
What is the connection between sickness and loneliness from both a mental and physical health perspective?
There’s a wide literature of research that demonstrates the pathways by which being socially connected or lacking social connection can ultimately influence physical health outcomes. Much of my early work was focused on laboratory studies where we looked at physiological responses to stress, and whether social relationships helped you cope with stress or were a source of stress. I started realizing a much broader influence that relationships can have on our health.
That led to two meta analyses that combined all of the published data worldwide linking loneliness to risk for premature mortality. The first one looked at indicators of social connections that reduced the risk of premature mortality, and then the second one looked at social isolation, loneliness, and living alone. We found that social deficits showed a significantly increased risk for premature mortality. That work led me to looking at this from a broader perspective in terms of its relevance to public health.
How has society changed to cause this to be a more prevalent problem?
That’s a really good question. We don’t have a clear answer on that, but there are some hypotheses.
One way in which we can look at this is demographics. For instance, there’s some US data from the PEW Organization that says the majority of Americans do not participate in social groups. They’re not volunteering. There’s reduced participation in religion or religious groups. In many industrialized countries, we are also seeing decreasing rates of marriage, an increasing rate of living alone, increased rates of childlessness, and decreasing size of household. Now of course these are all crude indicators; just because you’re unmarried or living alone doesn’t mean you’re not socially connected. But nonetheless these are robust indicators of risk, and these kinds of things provide a safety net. But just because you are married doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not at risk—we have to pay attention to the quality of relationships.
Even though biologically we may need others, we may perceive that we don’t need others, because we can we can order our groceries online.
Another hypothesis is changing economics: We are now financially able to live alone and not have to rely on others. Even though biologically we may need others, we may perceive that we don’t need others, because we can we can order our groceries online. We can meet a lot of our needs without others economically. And this may be one of the factors that may be contributing to loneliness.
Another major hypothesis is technology. We’re more connected than ever via technology. I do need to preface this with the fact that the data on technology and loneliness is limited at this point: We don’t really have much to compare it against. The data that’s available is primarily correlational, meaning we don’t know the nature of the facts. So it could be that spending time online makes people lonely, and it could be that lonely people spend more time online. Indeed, there’s some evidence that this may be bidirectional.
But there is some evidence that looking at time spent on technology or social media is an indicator of well-being. There’s also evidence to suggest that how we use social media may also have different effects. Whether you’re actively communicating with others in order to actually connect in person versus simply passively scrolling through your social media feed may produce a different effect. So we can’t make blanket statements about the role of technology. It’s complex. There’s some evidence to suggest that even how it’s used may have different effects depending on each group. For instance, using it for communication seems to be associated with positive outcomes for older adults but negative outcomes for younger people.
Are some demographics more likely to feel lonely than others?
Yes. There was a report that just came out that used a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people. In that study, the Z generation reported the highest rates of loneliness relative to other ages of older adults. And there is some data out in the UK that shows that young are showing increased rates of loneliness. There’s a lot more research being done among older adults, but younger adults are an area where we need a lot more research.
Workplaces can feel very lonely, despite being surrounded by people. How can we be around coworkers and still feel lonely?
It’s complex. Of course people who are lonely bring that with them to work. Though there can also be factors at work that can contribute to loneliness. Loneliness can influence absenteeism and productivity, so it’s important for employers to consider. It’s quite likely that most adults spend more waking hours at work than they do with their family and friends, so it suggests that work may play a very important role in combatting loneliness.
But we need to think beyond just putting a ping-pong table in the workplace. How do we foster real connections among our coworkers? How do we foster and encourage more of a work-life balance so that individuals have time to develop relationships outside of work? Most workplaces also have “wellness programs…”
The fact that you laughed after that is not a good sign…
We need to think beyond just putting a ping-pong table in the workplace. How do we foster real connections among our coworkers?
I think because we all know that there is some limited success among these. Most workplaces provide some sort of tools or resources for planning financially for retirement, but that should include planning socially for retirement, too.
Speaking of socialness at work, is lunchtime a place we could look to for social connection? How could we use that hour to fix this problem?
It’s so funny that you mention that! I once spent a sabbatical as a fellow at the Netherland Institute for Advanced Studies, which was a group of experts brought together about social relationships, technology, and health. Part of the fellowship was that all of the fellows had to come together for lunch. They wanted diverse experts to come together over a meal because they knew that by conversing and interacting we would come up with better ideas than we could on our own. I don’t have data to say that it “related to a 30% increased rate of this or that,” but it is interesting. It certainly seems like something worth exploring, given that it could foster not only relationships among co-workers, but could foster ideas that could increase innovation in the workplace.
In what other ways could employers try to make the office less lonely?
Aside from the retirement planning and the wellness programs, there needs to be more fostering of work/life balance. There is data that shows that longer hours spent on work aren’t always associated with better outcomes, greater success, or even greater productivity. Those extra hours aren’t necessarily well spent and can be damaging to employees’ health and well-being. That can ultimately hurt a place of employment, whether it’s from productivity or absenteeism or health-related costs.
I’m going to be visiting Denmark this summer. Denmark is known to be one of the healthiest countries in the world on the World Happiness Index. One factor they cite that is part of this is that there are strong social norms that the workday ends at 5pm. If someone has a family, you don’t schedule meetings after 4pm.
That shows that social norms play an important role. Sometimes a workplace may have policies, but the way in which things play out in terms of actual practices and norms of acceptability may be very different. Workplace practices and policies need to be systematically evaluated in terms of how they foster connection—or take away from it.
We also have a larger number of people freelancing and working from home than ever before. How does this apply to them?
Of course there are a variety of situations. I think it’s difficult to say overall. For some, working from home may have a number of advantages because it allows a greater time to spend with family and friends. On the other hand, it could be incredibly isolating for some, particularly if they don’t have those other kinds of relationships—and then on top of that, they are not creating relationships with coworkers. It’s difficult to have a blanket statement about all of it, but it’s certainly something we need to pay attention to and look more carefully look at. Ideally, we should find ways to capitalize on its strengths and acknowledge and address its limitations as well. But it would be a shame if we got rid of it all together, because it may be useful in some circumstances.
This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.