Loneliness is on the rise and this will have significant consequences.
The Health Resources and Services Administration recently used U.S. Census data to confirm that more and more Americans are living alone.
Over 35 million (14% of all U.S. adults), now live by themselves. In large cities, it is not uncommon for that number to be as high as 25%. This is a huge cultural shift from 1965 when less than 8% of adults lived alone.
This trend – along with the rise in online interactions, work-from-home policies and social distancing over the last year – has contributed to a culture of loneliness.
One-third of adults over 45 years of age feel lonely, while 43% of adults over 65 report they are lonely on a regular basis and 28% feel socially isolated, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and a new National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) study.
This is not new or necessarily COVID-19 related.
In 2018, CIGNA surveyed 20,000 U.S. adults and discovered that 46% sometimes or always feel alone.
In addition, 43% of respondents felt their relationships were not meaningful and 20% said they rarely felt close to other people.
Strikingly, younger adults were the loneliest demographic, with 40% experiencing significant loneliness.
We mistakenly assume that someone cannot become lonely when they live in a big city, work in a large office or have an extended family. In reality, loneliness is not always about physical isolation.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study revealed that satisfaction with our primary relationships is linked to feelings of loneliness.
For example, 28% of people dissatisfied with their family life feel lonely, compared to only 7% of people who were satisfied with their family life but felt lonely. Similarly, 26% of people dissatisfied with their social life felt lonely, compared to only 5% of those satisfied with it.
Career satisfaction and finances factored into feelings of loneliness but not with the power that family and social life did.
Though we have more ways to stay in contact with others than ever before, we are missing something. A person can send 40 emails and 60 text messages a day while being followed by 500 people on Instagram and still not have any in-person interactions.
We live in an era where we can easily communicate with others but struggle to make meaningful connections. Therefore, we are dissatisfied and subsequently feel lonely.
This failure to connect at a soul level has consequences.
We have long known that extended periods of isolation or loneliness can lead to depression and other psychiatric disorders. Yet, it has only been in the last few years that we have really grasped the physical impact of loneliness.
In 2015, researchers at UCLA showed a corollary exists between social isolation and cellular inflammation.
This is the same level of inflammation linked to poor immune system functioning, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and even cancer.
More recently, researchers at NASEM confirmed UCLA’s finding.
Social isolation and poor relationships were associated with a 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia, a 29% increase in heart disease and a 32% increase in the chance of a stroke.
Loneliness quadrupled the mortality rate among congestive heart failure patients and, across all groups, increased the risk of mortality by 45%.
These are not small numbers. No wonder U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called loneliness a public health crisis.
So, what do we do?
Of course, it should go without saying at this point that we need to stay informed about the necessary public health guidelines set forth by the CDC.
With that said, as more and more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations and our communities begin to open up again, we need to return to making connections. Not just for ourselves, but for others.
Human beings cannot live outside of community. Even the most introverted person needs, and desires, in-person social interaction. So, we have to start by rebuilding these social networks.
The first step is to learn to listen.
Listening is an active sport that requires us to give of ourselves. To do so well, we need to meet together in person with eye contact, rather than talking primarily, or exclusively, via text message or email.
Then, we need to practice sharing our souls.
Ironically, real human connections take place when we are most vulnerable. We have to risk the feelings of rejection in order to make meaningful connections.
After we shed our fears, we can begin to meet our neighbors again.
It is shameful, but I do not know half the families on my street. That needs to change.
Nothing opens us up like breaking bread. So, as people in our networks and social circles are vaccinated and can safely gather according to CDC guidelines, we should begin to reinstitute lunch with coworkers, neighborhood cookouts and dinners at home with friends and family.
Eventually, we should return to the physical contact we took for granted before the pandemic.
A hug, a handshake, a pat on the back – all of these encounters generate oxytocin, the hormone that causes us to feel bonded or connected with each other. It is this bond that contributes to the feeling of relationship satisfaction and, in turn, helps fight loneliness.
Therefore, once it is safe, it is time to shake hands, high-five and, yes, enjoy a group hug.
Finally, we have to reach out to those that we know are isolated, particularly those who have rarely left their homes this past year.
Because the consequences of chronic loneliness are so high, we have an obligation to invite people into our community and to inquire if we can join theirs.
This is not just for other people; it is for our own survival as well.
Hyper self-sufficiency and hyper-individualism work against us at both a psychological and physical level.
We need to return to the comfort of actual community where we know other people and they know us in return.