Is there an epidemic of loneliness?
Not too long ago, the surgeon general released an 81 page report on America’s epidemic of loneliness & isolation. If you’re lonely and have nothing else to do, you might even read it all. 😉
Of course, there is a distinction between feeling lonely and being alone. You can be lonely and surrounded by people. You can be a lonely person living a very busy life. The feeling of loneliness has more to do with how you feel and the quality of the connections to those around you. Then there’s another concept, and I’ll quote from my book Manic Kingdom, “It’s better to be alone than wish you were.” Some of you might relate to that.
There also can be great benefits to solitude, as Wordsworth eloquently captures in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:
“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
I think loneliness can be confused with a person not knowing how to be alone. How does a person not know how to be alone? I’m guessing it’s because they don’t feel comfortable being alone with themselves or perhaps they are afraid to get to know themselves (their real selves) or perhaps they feel they are missing out on something…like perpetually cursed with a form of FOMO. Instead of finding enjoyment or peace in being alone, they find distress and fear. I don’t go out a lot, because I like being alone. Some people find that concerning, and I probably SHOULD socialize more, but I’m not bored or depressed when I’m alone. I’m entertaining myself, learning, creating, writing, cooking, laughing to myself, starting new projects, finishing old ones and just engaged in my tiny sliver on the gameboard of life. I’m not on my couch staring at the walls. (Most of the time, anyhow. I also think it’s okay to be bored and sad once in a while. ;))
But back to the “loneliness is an epidemic” report…
The report states that the lack of connection can increase our risk of premature death to levels comparable of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Lack of connection was also linked to a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. The report also highlights the effects of social media and app use on loneliness, having cited a study showing that folks who spend more than 2 hours/day on social media are twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those who spend less than 30 mins/day.
While the pandemic response worsened feelings of loneliness, prior to the pandemic, approximately 50% of the US population reported feeling lonely. So this was already a growing issue pre-pandemic. The epidemic of loneliness is not something we can blame on COVID policies.
While the report offers tips on how to improve the quality of our relationships and overcome the epidemic of loneliness… it might be difficult given the addictive nature of social media and apps, dominating environments that foster quantity over quality. It also may be difficult given that the pandemic-fueled shift to remote work appears to be sticking around. At the end of the day, I think beating an epidemic of loneliness comes down to 1) awareness of our level of connectiveness to others, how lonely we feel, and what’s causing us to feel that way and 2) putting in the effort to have more meaningful connections with others. But beware: The effort itself can be disheartening and actually fuel loneliness because of the lonnnnnng history of human nature being an exhausting disappointment. We can be real jerks to each other. But as jerky and disappointing as we can be to each another, we should still put in the effort. We’ll get beat down, tricked, manipulated, sad and want to give up. But we should still keep trying…because the solid, genuine, meaningful connections we forge will make the journey of exhausting disappointments well worth it.
Let’s also not underestimate the power of our furry (and perhaps not so furry) companions in our fight against the epidemic of loneliness. A survey conducted by Human Animal Bond Research Institute and Mars Petcare found that 85% of pet parents agreed that interacting with their pets helped reduce loneliness; 76% agreed that human-pet interactions can help address social isolation & 72% believe that human-animal interactions are good for the community. 80% of pet parents said their pets make them feel less lonely, and 54% said their pets help them connect with other people.
I can tell you that while I live in a really crowded city, NYC, it often feels lonely. It’s big, fast, cold and competitive. When I got my dog Barnaby and began walking him around the city, I started meeting people. People who also had dogs or people who asked to pet Barnaby because they had a feeling it would brighten their day. Those interactions led to conversations. Then those short conversations led to longer conversations and eventually friendships. When it comes to loneliness, you can’t go wrong with a dog.
Hmm. Maybe the solution is as simple as getting a dog. I’ll be honest: Sometimes I look around at the world around me and wonder how people do it…how they get through life without a dog.
What do you think? Thoughts on feeling lonely or the epidemic of loneliness?
Thanks for reading,
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