Loneliness, a normal part of the human condition, has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. Amplified by the social isolation that the COVID pandemic imposed (and continues to demand of the elderly and the immune-compromised), loneliness as a social issue was already on the rise. As I wrote in a 2017 post on social support (1), a national survey revealed that 25% of Americans said they had no one in whom they could confide or share a personal problem. (A similar survey in 1985 had reported that most people had at least 2 – 3 trusted confidants.)
The highest reported rates of loneliness are among seniors, who are more likely to be living alone, retired from the workforce, and needing to protect themselves from the risks of catching not only COVID but all of the other viruses circulating out there. One of the most unfortunate consequences of our modern society, particularly in this country, is the sidelining of elders, who in earlier generations were considered a necessary part of a family, whether as caregivers for grandchildren and keepers of the home fire, or as sources of wisdom and familial history and traditions. Now, many elders are left feeling superflous, invisible, not belonging anywhere.
Right behind seniors in reported rates of loneliness are teens, who are developmentally still learning social interaction rules and skills, and who were hit hard by the closing of schools during the lockdown. Some still have not returned, or have dropped out. Teens lack the perspective that “this too shall pass,” giving more urgency to current distressing circumstances. And they are more reliant on their smart phones and social media, which create a false sense of being connected while not requiring any direct social interaction at all.
And in between are the rest of us, who may be experiencing loneliness for a variety of reasons, and to a greater degree than before. Everyone feels lonely sometimes, but as a recent article in The Atlantic says, “emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished.”(2)
According to Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, this is a public health issue.(3) Indeed, research has shown that loneliness is a risk factor for several kinds of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and dementia, as well as mental health, especially depression and suicide.(4)
While other nations (Japan,England) have created governmental agencies tasked with finding solutions to loneliness (5) the US has tended to regard it as an individual problem rather than a societal one, leaving Americans to cope with loneliness on their own. Ironic, but not surprising!
So if you are experiencing loneliness, you’re not alone! Know that this is a common condition in today’s world, caused by many factors over which we have little or no control (including the pandemic, political polarization, and over-reliance on smart phones and social media) so you are not to blame. I repeat, it is not your fault.
However, it is up to you to do something about it. The best remedy for loneliness is to reach out to other people – not to ask for help, but rather to offer it, either as a volunteer or a friend. There’s truth to the old adage, “get busy helping others and you’ll soon forget your own troubles.” As I have written previously,
It is easier to give than receive. Most people find it much easier to offer help, than to be the one asking for help. Research on the health benefits of social support shows that while giving support is correlated with health and living longer, receiving support conveys no longevity benefit. Perhaps this is because it’s stressful to ask for help, or because those who receive support are already suffering more ill-effects of stress. (6)
Find something you can do that will force you to get out and interact with other people. Make an effort to be kind and friendly to others. Look for opportunities to interact in person, from taking a walk with a friend to signing up for a class at a senior center or community college. Don’t be afraid to call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while – there’s a good chance that they may also be feeling lonely! And finally, if you’re not already seeing a therapist, consider contacting one. It can help just to talk about it.
1. Here’s the blog post I wrote in 2017 on social support, that includes this startling statistic: Social Support – The Survey
2. “How We Learned to be Lonely,” by Arthur C. Brooks, The Atlantic, 1/5/23 (if you can’t access this online, let me know and I can send you a copy of the article from the print edition)
3. “The Pandemic of Loneliness,” article on the California Health Care Foundation website, published 8/2/21
4. “How Loneliness is Damaging Our Health,” by John Leland, New York Times online edition, 4/20/22
5. Vivek Murthy speaking at online international conference on loneliness, sponsored by the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness (2/8/23)
6. Quote from my second blog post on social support in 2017