Ok, we’ve got a problem. Last week Britain announced a new Minister of Loneliness. Recent studies have revealed that feelings of isolation are associated with an increased risk of premature death, even more than obesity and is roughly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While in many ways, this feels like the most connected time in human history, our rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Loneliness is officially an epidemic.
It makes sense how this negative effect evolved. When we’re with other people we’re safer from “predators,” so our brains are wired for relationships and trust. Then without trusting relationships, our bodies produce stress hormones, which for short periods, help us be more vigilant against potential threats, but over the long-term, the increased cortisol levels lead to inflammation and all kinds of nasty physical and cognitive issues. Moral of the story, social connection is a fundamental human need, crucial to both survival and well-being.
There are a myriad of reasons why we’re lonelier now than ever: it’s easier and more common to move away from relatives and loved ones, we live in smaller households, delay marriage and kids, communicate on our devices instead of in-person… the list goes on.
Loneliness is a huge problem that bleeds into all aspects of our physical, emotional, economic, and political lives. The growing toxicity of our dialogue and polarization of ideologies is both a product of and cause of isolation. Without relationships, we lose our sounding boards and chance to gain perspective on our views and without better social skills, we push people away.
I imagine it’s also related to the attractiveness of extremist groups for a sense of belonging (Islamic and White Nationalist), or the increase in addiction to substances and pornography as a way to escape our isolation. Clearly, we can see how our interconnectedness, something so core to who we are as a species, is causing so much social and economic damage. Now, the big question is what to do about it.
Certainly, there is a role for policy–ministers are an admirable start. We can also examine how to better support new parents, caregivers, and the elderly to feel less isolated; place greater emphasis on social skills training for kids in schools; and it makes sense doctors start screening for social connectedness in patients. Maybe we can eventually get insurance to cover weekly restaurant bills with friends and family as preventative care!
Here are some small acts we can adopt in our daily lives:
- Say hi to people we walk past in hallways and sidewalks. Small connections matter too–they notice when we miss a day.
- Use social media as a tool to find motivational support networks that offer ways to cope and combat loneliness; support that includes getting out of the house and meeting in person.
- Helping others is a powerful remedy for loneliness, so finding church or service groups can facilitate those connections and a sense of purpose.
- Carve out time in our day to be with people without our devices which often distract us from being fully present.
- At work meetings, take time to talk story before getting right to business.
- While we won’t stop teleworking or using social media, we can better address their potential harms and begin actively and intentionally counteracting them.
We need a range of techniques as having a diversity of relationships is associated with better health outcomes. Different people provide different outlets and resources for us, for example, some friends give us personal advice, others professional advice, some make us laugh, and the really great ones have those power tools we can borrow. We each need only a handful of meaningful relationships to curb feelings of isolation and promote wellbeing.
There’s clearly an urgency to improve how we talk to each other and enhance our ability to solve complex problems together. Ultimately, the antidote to loneliness is community. And community can be however we choose to define it–our neighborhood, our church group, local sports bar, whatever. So how do we deliberately build community? That’s a discussion I’m ready to continue… preferably with other people.