Loneliness and Health
In May the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country. It comes as no surprise that since the start of the pandemic, people have openly talked about feeling isolated, lonely, and disconnected. Would you be surprised to hear that even before the onset of the pandemic half of adults in the US reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness? Social media gives us the impression that everyone is happily out having fun, spending time with friends and family, and are hardly ever home. A 2022 study found that only 39% of Americans feel very connected to others on an emotional level. In reality, we are feeling more alone and lonely than we ever have.
As human beings, social connection is a fundamental need, as essential to our survival as food, water, and shelter. The more social and emotional connections we have the better we thrive. We are not designed to succeed totally on our own. We have survived and evolved because of our ability to work together. Our evolution has made us biologically wired for social connection to the point where our brains are neurologically adapted to expect and need proximity to others.
Current technology fools us into thinking we are better connected now than we ever have been. In a U.S.-based study, participants who reported using social media for more than two hours a day had about double the odds of reporting increased perceptions of social isolation compared to those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day. We need to ask ourselves whether our time on social media truly connects us to others or are we watching other people’s lives alone on our devices.
As social creatures that flourish through connection, the lack of social connection poses significant health risks. According to the Surgeon General’s report, the lack of social connection can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Insufficient social connection has been associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke, along with increases in our risk of anxiety, depression, and dementia.
Understandably, isolation and loneliness have a significant impact on our mental health as well. According to the Surgeon General’s report, “One study found that among men, deaths due to suicide are associated with loneliness and more strongly with indicators of objective isolation such as living alone. The same study showed that for women loneliness was significantly associated with hospitalization for self-harm.” Loneliness and social isolation have also been associated with suicidal ideation in older adults, cancer patients, and adolescents. Likewise, it also increases the risk of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents and this risk remained high even up to 9 years later.
Why is it so important to be connected to others? Social connection influences our ability to find meaning and purpose to our lives. It reduces stress, increases safety, improves our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity, and grounds us in hope. Without social connection, we live shorter, lonelier, and unhealthier lives than those around us who are engaged with others.
Take the time to notice those around you who appear to be lonely or disconnected from others. Start with family and branch out into your social circle. Not only will it help them but it will help you as well. Building a culture of connection is one of the Six Pillars to Advance Social Connection outlined in the report. We can all help with that by cultivating values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another.