Data Confirms Loneliness and Social Isolation are Widespread

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Wouldn’t it be nice to just have someone to talk with?

We all have had this sentiment at one time or another but for many of us, it’s becoming a common refrain. According to a study published in 2018 from health insurer Cinga, loneliness is at epidemic levels in America (among other countries). The 2018 survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older revealed some sobering findings:

  • Nearly half sometimes or always feeling alone.

  • One in four rarely or never feel as though there are people in their lives who really understand them.

  • Two in five sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.

  • One in five rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people in their lives that they can talk to.

  • Only around half have meaningful daily in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family.

  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse social health than older generations.

Further, the study stated that social media use alone is not conclusively a predictor of loneliness. It was unclear if those that identify as being lonely tend to use social media more to alleviate such feelings or if their use of social media leaves them feeling more socially isolated.

Being Isolated is Not in Our Nature

The research on loneliness is also revealing just how much it impacts our health and wellbeing. We evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago as social creatures. It’s hardwired into our human psyche to give us the best chance of not only surviving but thriving.

It helped our ancestors ward off the enemy clan while creating the protection needed to go explore new lands. But today we don’t live in community-rich villages anymore. Instead, we live in isolated houses frequently in front of screens and away from any dependable camaraderie.

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Loneliness Is Slowly Killing Us

According to Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General loneliness is becoming an epidemic public health crisis in America. As written in his 2017 Harvard Business Review article, he cites the reduction in lifespan [contributed to loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact of obesity on an individual’s lifespan.

Loneliness contributes to poor health in other ways as well. He says loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia. Further, it limits creativity. It impairs other aspects of executive brain function, such as decision-making and impulse control. This is all bad news and helps explain why when you feel all alone you are more likely to eat the whole pint of ice cream in one sitting.

So What do We do About it?

In a simplistic way, the remedy to social isolation is more real social engagement. The Cigna study concluded that people who engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better overall health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face. According to Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, having three to five vital friendships or confidants is optimal for well being. These are people who you share, laugh and lament with on a regular basis.

Take Cigna’s 10 point questionnaire to determine your level of loneliness.

Our social media participation may be billed as a convenient solution to our chronic disconnection, but many are realizing it hardly satisfies the craving for genuine human engagement. The kind that happens in person and over time. When you can see literally eye-to-eye and read more than what is said or written, empathy forms. And, in time, a more lasting bond.

The medical community is somewhat stumped on how to advise patients and the general public on how to effectively remedy this problem. In part, it’s because the feelings of loneliness are quite subjective. You can feel lonely in the midst of a large group or even in the company of a loved one. Plus, the reasons for one’s loneliness can be so wide-ranging. A published article such as “How to Combat Loneliness in 5 Easy Steps” might prove too simplistic. Would the advice of Go volunteer or Chat it up with your barista pave the way to meaningful and sustainable social relationships?

Practical Baby Steps

I hypothesize that motivation for social engagement happens when we have ease and aptitude in our personal communication skills. This, of course, is just one part but may lay the essential foundation of where to begin. If we felt more comfortable and confident in how we approach one another and how we talk with one another would we have less holding us back from jumping into the social carnival party? Perhaps.

In short, if we weren’t afraid, would we just go for it more often? Over time we may actually develop an eagerness to engage. Void of the insecurity of how we’re doing it or even how well we’re being received. We’d maintain a baseline of social confidence and contentment. Our engagement with others would be a relational expression of how we feel most of the time.

Perhaps this sounds too naive but as individuals and as a collective society we just need to try. I will not propose: Just get out there! Let’s instead gather some capability, collective support, and eventual confidence in personal communication and relatability skills and begin to dip our toes in the water.