Finding ways to overcome loneliness can improve health.
Researchers began reporting on the effects of loneliness even before the pandemic forced people into isolation and social distancing. Although the preponderance of the research focused on the elderly, even young people can feel lonely. Social isolation is what someone experiences when they are without connections to friends, family, or neighbors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says loneliness “reflects the difference between a person’s actual and desired level of connection. This means that even a person with a lot of friends can feel lonely.” Loneliness affects us not just emotionally, but physically as well.
As early as 2013, Matthew Pantell and colleagues reported on the loneliness factor in the American Journal of Public Health. The team determined that social isolation is a predictor of mortality, comparable to traditional clinical risk factors.
Adults and especially the elderly are often socially isolated because of their health. Young people, despite social media connections, are also an at-risk group. It was reported in 2018 that loneliness is a major issue even on college campuses. According to The Lancet:
“Loneliness has been associated with objective social isolation, depression, introversion, or poor social skills. However, studies have shown these characterizations are incorrect, and that loneliness is a unique condition in which an individual perceives himself or herself to be socially isolated even when among other people.” (Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo, S)
The cell phone problem
Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology and Founding Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, Program in Science, Technology, and Society. In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she writes and is now often quoted as saying:
“Every time you check your phone in the company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”
However, when feeling lonely young people are more likely than seniors to be in a position to reach out and get help from friends, colleagues, and school clubs.
Indicators of social isolation
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., who recently published “Social Isolation and Loneliness as Medical Issues” in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported in 2017 that demographic characteristics are indicators of social isolation. This may include 28 percent of older adults who live alone, more than half of the adult population that is unmarried, 40 percent of first marriages, and 70 percent of remarriages that end in divorce.
Given these statistics and what has happened since the pandemic, researchers and some physicians are suggesting a screening tool to detect loneliness.
At the 2023 American Medical Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, Peter A. Hollmann, M.D. of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, advised physicians, “Don’t assume you can tell who’s lonely or not.”
“Think about how someone might be isolated or lonely and what you may be able to do about it. Ask them what they think might be helpful and acceptable to them. And then advocate for resources in the community.” (Jennifer Lubell, July 6, 2023 reporting.)
There are many suggested solutions to loneliness, such as calling a friend, joining a group, volunteering, gardening, and finding a new hobby. Perhaps the most practical way to combat loneliness is McClean Hospital’s number one suggestion: the practice of gratitude, defined in 4 Steps To Walk Away From Loneliness | McLean Hospital. (A member of Mass General Brigham, McLean is an international mental health facility.)
Studies have shown that acts of gratitude can help us feel more positive and strengthen relationships. McLean’s post notes that “even silently recognizing a good person or situation in your life can develop a sense of gratitude.”
With gratitude, you do not have to look to outside activities, events, or people. It begins with you.
- Start by expressing gratitude for yourself.
- Think positively about embracing solitude.
- Create a quiet gratitude space in your home.
- Think of the people who have helped you to lift your spirits.
- Express gratitude for places where you felt a sense of joy, whether it was at the local coffee shop, a neighboring garden, a museum, or a walk by the water.
Take an active role in expressing gratitude. Send someone a gratitude note, just out of the blue. Fill a basket with a pack of fun postcards. Put a stamp on at least four of these. In this way, when someone comes to mind whom you think might need a connection, drop them a line. Unlike email, receiving a card or note in the mail is a tangible reminder of friendship or love.
Pantell M, Rehkopf D, Jutte D, Syme SL, Balmes J, Adler N. Social isolation: a predictor of mortality comparable to traditional clinical risk factors. Am J Public Health. 2013 Nov;103(11):2056-62.
Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S. The growing problem of loneliness. Lancet. 2018 Feb 3;391(10119):426.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Andrew Steptoe, “Social Isolation: An Underappreciated Determinant of Physical Health,” Current Opinion in Psychology, February 2022.