Being number one is great. Being a party of one? Not so great. In the words of songwriter Harry Nilsson, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” And apparently lots of us are doing that number because loneliness has been described as a public health crisis and the number one public health issue.
Yes, one is a small number, but it can have a big impact on an individual. How big, you ask? According to Sanjay Gupta, M.D., research shows that loneliness may increase mortality risk by 45%. Echoing that alarm is Mark Robinson, chief officer of Britain’s biggest charity working with older folks. He states that “It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Yikes! Who knows what the consequences of being a lonely chain smoker could be.
But there’s more! Researchers at BYU and University of Utah have found that social isolation may be more deadly than obesity. Feelings of loneliness, their research results revealed, may increase a person’s chance of premature death by 14%.
I hate to break it to modern researchers, but these findings are old hat. REALLY OLD hat. Way back in Genesis 2, God immediately recognized that it was not good for a man (OK,in the Garden of Eden THE only man, Adam) to be alone. Therefore, God created a companion for him. Eve may have frustrated Adam at times and led him astray by tempting him with the forbidden fruit, but he sure wasn’t lonely.
Millions live here in the United States, so loneliness shouldn’t be a problem given our country’s large population, right? WRONG! University of Chicago psychology professor John T. Cacioppo tells us that at least 1 in 5 Americans (that’s about 60 million people) suffers from loneliness. How can the world’s population be at an all-time high and population growth a concern and yet vast numbers of us are lonely?
The answer is that being with people is not the same as being connected to people. It’s possible to be in a crowd and be lonely. It’s possible to be married and be lonely. Social media seems to exacerbate the problem. We might have lots of “friends” on Facebook, but many of these connections are merely electronic rather than personal and intimate. Pushing the button to send a communication to a “friend” just can’t compare to see a living and breath friend’s face light up when you converse with him in person.
The problem of loneliness is a human problem, not just an American one. An estimated 9 million British suffer from loneliness. British Prime Minister.Theresa May commented that “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” So how does the British politician combat this societal problem? Why appoint a government official to look into it, of course! Tracey Crouch was appointed by the PM back in January as a minister of loneliness to head up the governmental response to the issue.
Should we be concerned if we are feeling lonely? The answer depends. Everyone is bound to feel isolated at one point or another, but if the feeling becomes chronic, then alarm bells should sound. Why? Chronic loneliness significantly raises the risk of a number of physical and psychological health problems, including heart disease and depression.
Not sure how bad your loneliness is? Not to worry. There’s a test you can take, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which poses 20 questions to assess your loneliness. If you experience test anxiety, though, you may create another problem by taking the test.
Does feeling connected really matter? Sure it does! Haven’t you heard that no man is an island? While disconnection is bad, connection can be very good for us. People tend to take better care of themselves when they have friends to encourage them to do so. Friends provide a support system when things get rough; they are there to give assistance during difficult times. As my mother would always say, “A friend in need is a friend indeed!”
Having supportive friends and family may be as good as medicine. Research conducted by the National Academy of Sciences shows that when someone who is in pain holds a loved one’s hand, brain wave patters and breathing between the two individuals synchronize, which helps ease or eliminate the pain. I’ll take a caring friend over a dose of medicine any day–even a dose taken with a spoonful of sugar.
Given the apparent enormity of the loneliness epidemic, what can one do to alleviate this societal bane? Actually, the solution is not as difficult as you might believe. Each of us needs to be more intentional about connecting with others. Remember the old AT & T ad urging you to “Reach out and touch someone?” Well, just do it. If you think about someone, why not pick up your cell phone (which is undoubtedly close at hand) and call that person to tell him you were thinking about him? Even a brief conversation will perk him (and likely you) up.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta has an easy suggestion to implement. He urges us to “just say hello.” Even if you don’t have a full conversation with someone, you can always smile and say “hello.” Perhaps you might compliment someone on her dress, manners or helpfulness (think store clerk or cashier). I can personally attest that even the tiniest comment can make a huge difference. One day after work I was beat, but had to stop at the store on the way home. An older lady I did not know walked up to me and said, “That dress you are wearing is so attractive; you really look good in it.” My demeanor changed, and I walked with a bit more spring in my step after that interaction. Who knows when the smallest comment or a smile will boost someone’s day and make him feel connected to the human race?
Since social interaction can help us to live healthier, happier and longer lives, let’s band together to ban loneliness. Reach out and touch someone. Just say hello. Hey, it beats exercising and dieting, doesn’t it?
JUST WONDER-ing: Have you ever considered loneliness to be a societal problem? When is a time in your life where you felt lonely? What helps you to feel connected to others?