What’s the correlation?
Whether you’re a child, teen, adult or elderly, it’s not fun to be lonely. People are supposed to be social beings. This is why it might not come as a surprise that being lonely can negatively impact your health. What are the consequences? What steps can you take to overcome loneliness?
Loneliness is something that we all deal with throughout our lives. It isn’t simply about being alone because some people are happy on their own. It’s also not how many people you know or how often you see them. It’s not when you’ve had a bad day where you don’t feel connected. Also, everyone is different as far as how much alone time they need to recharge. The problem arises if you feel too disconnected from other people or if you don’t feel understood or cared for, which can happen even if there are lots of people around. Loneliness and social isolation are two different things. Social isolation means you have few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness is the subjective perception of isolation. Basically, it’s the discrepancy between your desired and actual level of social connection. This is why some people can be socially isolated and not feel lonely and others feel lonely even if they’re surrounded by people. Loneliness can also occur during life transitions, like when a loved one dies, you get divorced or you move to a new place. This type is called reactive loneliness and will typically get better. The issue is when you feel lonely all of the time and it becomes a chronic state of being. Since most people know how painful reactive loneliness can be, it’s easy to imagine just how challenging chronic loneliness is. You’re more likely to experience chronic loneliness when you don’t have the emotional, mental or financial resources to be able to satisfy your social needs, lack a social circle that offers these benefits, have a high amount of work demands, have an improper sleep schedule and/or lack “me time.” Certain factors can increase your risk of becoming lonely, such as living alone, being unmarried (single, divorced, widowed), retirement and physical impairments. The issue with being lonely is that it has many major negative health consequences. Loneliness has a surprising impact on both mental and physical health. Several studies have found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which makes it even more dangerous than obesity. Scientists have found that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones. These stress hormones are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infections and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. There are several other negative things that occur when you’re lonely. Since loneliness can affect your brain, your ability to problem solve and remember things can decrease. If you’re lonely, you usually start to feel bad about your life and can end up depressed, which leads to further isolation, so you feel even worse. When you’re lonely, you’re less likely to follow a healthy lifestyle. This means that you’re more likely to cut back or stop your workouts, eat unhealthy food, eat large amounts of food and not have a regular sleep pattern. Also, you’re more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs. All of these factors are known to decrease lifespan, which highlights the fact that loneliness makes premature death more likely for people of all ages.
This is why it’s so concerning that the number of people who feel that they’re alone, isolated or distant from others has doubled since the 1980s, reaching epidemic levels. A new report based on an online survey of more than 20,000 US adults was published recently. It used the well-regarded UCLA Loneliness Scale to see how widespread loneliness is in America. The survey found that almost 50% of Americans sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. Additionally, 54% of respondents feel no one knows them well and 40% stated that they lack companionship, don’t having meaningful relationships and they’re isolated. A Pew Research Center survey of over 6,000 US adults connected frequent loneliness to dissatisfaction with one’s family, social and community life. About 28% of respondents are dissatisfied with their family life versus just 7% were satisfied with their family life. Around 26% were dissatisfied with their social lives versus 5% who are. The number of respondents who say they aren’t satisfied with the quality of life in their local communities is around 21% compared to 7% who are.
According to a Loneliness Study completed by the AARP, 42.6 million Americans over the age of 45 have chronic loneliness. The study found that loneliness was good at predicting poor health. Of respondents, 55% rated their health as “excellent” and weren’t as lonely as the 25% who rated their health as “poor.” Data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project states that about 30% of older adults feel lonely fairly often. Several studies have found that if you are socially isolated you have a higher chance of acquiring Alzheimer’s disease. Since it currently afflicts more than 5.7 million Americans and that number is expected triple by 2050, it’s a cause for concern. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 25% of Americans, and 28% of older adults, live by themselves. This is the highest rate ever recorded with the number increasing 10% in the last decade. This is concerning because it means that more and more people are living alone, which increases the chances of social isolation.
The surprising fact is that the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, not elderly adults. It’s estimated that a good portion of the nation’s 75 million millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22). The number of people in these two groups are lonelier than any other US demographic and are in worse health than older generations. The ironic thing is that we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization. One of the reasons younger adults are so lonely is the direct result of this—widespread social media use. This is often referred to as “the social media paradox.” We are able to be more connected to other people than at any time in history and yet the number of people feeling lonely and isolated is higher than ever before. We all need to have a basic sense of “belonging,” but engaging with others through social media undermines this. On social media people usually share things that focus almost entirely on the best experiences. So, we’re constantly seeing all the parties, vacations and meals that our “friends” are enjoying. When we aren’t doing these things ourselves, it can feel like you’re being left out. While social media can be a useful way for older adults or those who are geographically or medically isolated to connect with others, it’s actually displacing more authentic social experiences for everybody else. Perceived social isolation (PSI) is the term used to describe the loneliness that social media users are going through. Researchers have found that adults who spend more than two hours a day on social media are twice as likely to have PSI than people who spend a half hour a day. Also, the more you increase the frequency of use, the higher the risk of developing PSI. For example, individuals who made 58 or more visits a day to social media had three times the PSI of people who made less than nine visits.
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that social connections are just as important as a healthy diet, getting enough exercise and sleeping well. One of the most important things to do is to become more aware of your feelings. Making small daily decisions can also help. Instead of messaging a coworker, walk down the hall to speak to them. Doing small favors for people or random acts of kindness is another great idea. Typically, when you give to others, it takes your mind off yourself. An essential step to combating loneliness is to take a social media break and focus on the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. It’s vital to cultivate meaningful connections at work and in your personal life. Several studies have found that those with strong social relationships are 50% more likely to live longer. Since face-to-face connections are the best, look for ways to connect, such as making plans with friends and family, joining a club, taking a class or trying a new activity. According to the National Institutes of Health, volunteering is a great way to connect with people. Simply reaching out to lonely people can encourage them to engage with others. Taking care of yourself is key. This means getting regular exercise, eating healthy, following a good sleep schedule, not over doing it at work and making sure that you schedule “me time.” However, if you try all of these things and still feel isolated after several weeks, or if you’re so lonely, depressed or anxious that it gets in the way of your work or home life, you should talk to a doctor.
Developing effective interventions against loneliness isn’t a simple task because there’s no single underlying cause. The most successful interventions focus inward and address the negative thoughts triggered by loneliness. These seem to work better than interventions designed to improve social skills, enhance social support or increase opportunities for social interaction. It’s important to teach children that aloneness does not mean loneliness and what to look for and when to intervene if a peer seems lonely or disconnected from others. For adults, interventions need to be practical and help to encourage a sense of purpose and belonging by allowing them to connect to groups and communities. Some programs, like Meals on Wheels or help-lines that arrange phone calls between volunteers and the lonely of any age, present direct social support to those who feel isolated. Another area that is becoming increasingly popular are intergenerational initiatives. One of these is global home-sharing programs, or cohousing, because it allows elderly individuals to make meaningful connections with children and young adults. Cohousing communities and mixed-age residences are built to bring older and younger generations together. They can be a whole neighborhood with single-family homes or larger apartment buildings that share dining, laundry and recreational spaces. The cohousing makes it easy for residents to form clubs, organize child/elder care, arrange carpooling, have parties or set up events, like game or movie nights. According to the Cohousing Association, there are currently 165 cohousing communities in the US with another 140 in the planning stages. Another potential solution to loneliness is using service exchanges. For example, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation has started a program called LinkAges. Through an online platform, members post their needs, like music lessons, someone to play games with or a ride to the supermarket. Other members volunteer to help, which they receive “credits” for. These credits can be redeemed when they have a need in the future. For Britain, the problem of social isolation is so acute that the prime minister has appointed a minister for loneliness and they’ve started a number of programs to address the epidemic of isolation. Due to the amount time we spend at work, business leaders have a professional and personal interest in taking the issue of loneliness. This is because lonely employees have impaired performance, less creativity, difficulty with decision making and feel/act less approachable, which undermines trust, group cohesion and collaboration with others. These can lead to organizational problem. Since half of CEOs also report feeling lonely in their roles, it’s an important workplace issue. One way to address it might be to put into place flexible work arrangements that allow employees to deal with any personal challenges. In addition, many Americans have the bad habit of not taking vacation time. Vacations are essential to reconnecting with family and loved ones. Organizational policies that encourages employees to take vacation and makes it easy for them to do so is vital. Another critical component is creating an inclusive culture in the workplace. This means that differences are acknowledged and embraced, which will help employees know that their voice matters and is valued.
Since loneliness has such clear consequences for both mental and physical health, it’s something that we must tackle head-on as the growing public health crisis that it is. While there are things that can be done systemically, each one of us can reach out to someone who may be lonely. By making a simple human connection, it can make a huge difference. It’s important that we understand that we all want to have feelings of social cohesion, mutual trust and respect not only within our own community, but among different sections of society. Perhaps, even more so at a time of great social polarization aggravated by antagonistic politics and toxic TV news. If you’re lonely, it can be a difficult rut to get out of and may mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zone a bit. Keep in mind that what matters is having strong connections with others because you’ll be happier, healthier and more productive when you do.