Mental Health: Our Epidemic of Loneliness

Are you Lonely? If so, you are among the 50 percent of Americans who are experiencing loneliness, which subsequently makes it an epidemic in our society as well as throughout the world.

Loneliness is not determined by the number of friends or social contacts a person has. Those in the Social Sciences define loneliness as the emotional state created when people have fewer social contacts and meaningful relationships than they would like — relationships that make them feel known and understood. Essentially, if you feel lonely, you are lonely.

This is amplified by recent studies conducted by the Insurance Company Cigna. In their study of 20,000 individuals about 47 percent of respondents reported often feeling alone or left out. Thirteen percent said that there were zero people who knew them well. This, and other studies mimicking the same, begs the question: What is going on in our society where loneliness is so prevalent?

One view is that the increase in loneliness in our society may be due to the increase in isolation of individuals. The Cigna study relates that between 1985 and 2009 the average American’s social network shrank by more than one-third, defined by the number of close confidants. One reason for this is the aging of Baby Boomers, who had fewer children and more divorces than their parents, leaving many without companions in their old age.

About 1 in 11 Americans age 50 or older doesn’t have a spouse, romantic partner, or living child. That’s roughly 8 million people. One in six Boomers lives alone. The increasingly transient nature of work is also making people lonely as Americans leave family and hometowns behind in search of paychecks. Surprisingly, young people are actually most at risk being lonely in modern society. In the Cigna study, Generation X members ages 18 to 22 and Millennia’s ages 23 to 37 scored the highest for loneliness.

Another view of the increase in loneliness in our society is one of America’s increasingly polarized politics — and the partisan viciousness on social media — may be at least partly the product of increasing loneliness. Psychiatrists Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds describe loneliness as due to social isolation, making people less empathetic and more likely to view the world in terms of “us” and “them;” making it more difficult to understand a point of view other than our own.

They say that this results in “the lonely has no one to compare notes with, which results in more polarization”…an increase in loneliness.

Research conducted by Evergreen College cites reasons that younger people are feeling lonelier. Americans are getting married and having children later in life; there are now more single people in the U.S. than at any time in the past 140 years. Not being part of a regular workplace also plays a role, with freelancers and “gig economy” workers reporting high levels of loneliness.

And despite seemingly infinite opportunities to connect online with social media my actually be making the problem worse. Scrolling through an endless stream of curated photos of parties, vacations, family gatherings, and weddings may increase feelings of being left out or dissatisfaction with one’s own life. In one study of Americans ages 19 to 32 the top 25 percent of social media users were twice as likely to report feeling lonely as the people using it least. Some researchers say loneliness was becoming widespread long before the Industrial Revolution broke up tightly knit cultural communities, “I do think that this speaks to one of the dilemmas of our modern, mobile society,” said Stephen Coontz, a historian at Evergreen College. “As we gain the freedom to become whatever we want to be we’ve lost the sense of belonging.”

The physical and psychological impact of loneliness can be most severe. A 2010 study by Brigham Young University found that loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years. Other studies have found connections between loneliness and a wide range of health problems, including increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. Lonely people are more likely to suffer from insomnia, depression, and drug abuse. They are also more likely to suffer from more rapid cognitive decline in old age.

The greatest psychological and physical problem relative to loneliness is stress. The feeling of loneliness, scientists say, is an evolutionary phenomenon. Just as hunger encourages animals to find food, loneliness forces humans to seek out the protection of the group, increasing the chances of survival. To produce this behavior, loneliness triggers the release of stress hormones, particularly cortisol.

In small doses, these hormones help make solitary humans more alert to danger. But they damage health if the body is exposed to them over long periods of time. Stress leads to high blood pressure, increased inflammation, and a weakened immune system. Without an emotional support network, lonely people are also more likely to slip into unhealthy habits, such as substance abuse, overeating, and not exercising.

For seniors, isolation can be especially deadly in the event of an emergency like a bad fall or a heart attack. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” said John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who studied loneliness a the University of Chicago.

If you suffer from loneliness then it is most important that you “get outside yourself…” to maintain meaningful relationships you can turn to share your loneliness with.

Your may also find it most helpful to engage in church groups or other groups who have a visitation ministry to nursing homes or other areas where people feel isolated; to visit with those whom are shut-ins or in rest homes, or other means of maintaining social relationships can prove most meaningful, by helping them you also help yourself.

Until Next Time, Stay Healthy My Friends!