By Vicki Saunders
Occasionally, I feel isolated and alone. I feel my “otherness” - that I am not like everyone else. I am different. I don’t belong. I’ve never thought of myself as a lonely person, but guess what? That’s the definition of loneliness.
Webster’s dictionary defines loneliness as “sadness because one has no friends or company” and “sad from being apart from other people.” While my feelings of isolation happen infrequently, for many others these feelings are profound, prevalent, and they are changing our culture.
While we’re more connected than ever before through smart devices, the Internet, media, and travel, loneliness rates in this country and around the world are skyrocketing. According to a survey by health insurance provider Cigna, more than fifty-four percent of twenty thousand respondents reported that, “no one really knows them.” Fifty-six percent reported that the people around them are “not with them,” and forty percent claimed they lacked companionship. Compare that to as recently as the 1980’s when about twenty percent of Americans said they were lonely. Suicide rates are at a thirty-year high and rates of depression have gone up ten-fold since the 1960's. These numbers are scary and staggering. They highlight the fact that our everyday relationships are suffering from how lonely we are despite our “connectedness.”
You may be thinking, “well, loneliness won’t kill you,” but that isn’t actually true. It turns out that loneliness can shorten your life. A study recently published in Perspectives in Psychological Science analyzing findings from seventy scientific publications and three million participants found that loneliness, social isolation and living alone are all factors that lead to early death. The risk of early death associated with loneliness is as high as smoking, and even higher than obesity.
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes in Harvard Business Review, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. […] Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.” Our relationships matter not just to our friends and loved ones, but to our own health.
That same Cigna study shares that the mortality risk of loneliness is even greater for young people. Loneliness may seem more likely in older people, but young people increasingly suffer from isolation and may feel ashamed to admit feeling lonely, finding it difficult to talk about it.
Brené Brown, noted writer, speaker and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, suggests we are in the midst of “a crisis of spiritual connection.” She defines spirituality as “the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to each other by something greater than ourselves…something rooted in love and compassion.” Perhaps our feeling of disconnection is so jarring because we intuitively know that we’re not meant to be disconnected. We’re hardwired for connection with others in a primal way. Our ability to build relationships, trust each other and cooperate increased our chances for survival as a species. We know how to do this.
The good news is that we can actively do something about loneliness. We can:
- Seek opportunities for connection. Whatever you’re doing, engage in it fully, whether it’s folding laundry, visiting a special place, looking at art, singing along with music, or walking through the woods.
- Reach out to friends and family. You don’t need thousands of friends; deep connections with a small number of people are most important. Find people you love and who make you laugh, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them.
- Take care of yourself. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and even moderate amounts of exercise will make a substantial difference.
- Do something creative. Pick up a coloring book or work on a puzzle – it has the power to improve your emotional wellbeing.
- Help someone else. Vivek Murthy offers, “Although it seems counterintuitive to assist others when you are feeling lonely, extending help to others and allowing yourself to receive help builds a connection that is mutually affirming.” We have the ability to heal one another by creating opportunities to learn about each other’s lives.
- Practice mindfulness. Allow yourself to be present with your feelings. Resist the urge to resist. Just checking in with your thoughts can be helpful.
Let’s pay attention to ourselves and each other. Loneliness is an epidemic, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s resist the urge to retreat into our bunkers feeling angry, depressed, and lonely, and find ways to build authentic friendships, deepen interpersonal connections, and strengthen our communities. Our lives may depend on it.
Vicki Saunders, PhD, has worked for the last 25 years as a professional facilitator specializing in female identity development, strategic planning and executive coaching. Vicki has her PhD from Saybrook University in Organization Systems and a Masters Degree in Human Resources Development from George Washington University. She also has a Masters Degree in Jungian Studies with the Jung Institute in Houston and Saybrook University.
Opportunities for Self-Reflection
- Do you experience loneliness? What brings on those feelings?
- How can you help others who seem lonely?
- What is one change you can make to connect more authentically with others?