I received a phone call last night from one of my older friends to tell me that her dog had just died. I expressed my sympathy, but she caught me at a bad time, so we didn’t have a very long conversation. Reflecting back on what happened, I called back today to really talk. When she answered the phone, the first thing she said was, “I’m so glad you called. I have been feeling lonely all day.” My friend is not alone. She lives with her daughter, and has a son with whom she keeps close contact. She has other friends. Yet, she finds herself afflicted with a condition common to many – loneliness.
Loneliness is a subjective experience, making it difficult to identify. Some people appear to have a lot of social contacts, but still feel like nobody really knows them, or they don’t really feel close to many people.
Social psychologists offer a definition of loneliness as the gap between the social connections you would like to have and those you feel you experience. In a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2018, 22% of adults in the USA say they are always or often feel lonely. A 2019 survey by Cigna, the large health insurer, found 61% of Americans report feeling lonely. In 2017, the U.S. Surgeon General called loneliness a public health epidemic.
One recent Harvard study posited that the increased mortality risk from loneliness equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and in excess of being obese. Researchers are now finding that some of these risks can be traced back to a relationship with inflammation and harmful changes in DNA expression caused in part by chronic stress placing the body in a constant low level fight-or-flight response.
Add to all this the Covid pandemic forcing all of us to be in self-isolation and to maintain social distancing, and you have a perfect storm. Olivia Laing, a New York Times columnist observed, “We are all lonely now.”
When speaking of being lonely, most people refer to interpersonal loneliness, such as “Do I have someone who is really a friend, a person I can share my troubles with?” However, there are those, especially in the 18-30 year old crowd, who experience an existential loneliness. “Does my life have any purpose, meaning? How can my mote of an existence fit into this vast universe?” There is yet a third type of loneliness – societal. “If I enter a room, is my arrival welcome?” Prejudice increases this type of loneliness, affecting those whose color, class, body shape, beauty, gender identification or disability makes them stand apart from society’s expressed preferences.
Finally, loneliness begets loneliness. When you are feeling lonely is the time you are least likely to want to reach out to others, but it’s vital that you do so. People are typically embarrassed about loneliness because they think it ties to some kind of inadequacy on their part. Yet, you are the one who has to reach out, to initiate contact, and reach out to someone you know.
You can’t really talk about the problems of loneliness without talking about our problems with friendship. One of the defining features of American society has been its mobility. It’s not unusual for Americans to move multiple times, often large distances. While this mobility has benefits, it also fractures friendships. What value do we place on friendship in the calculus of our decisions? I’m always surprised when those close to retirement talk about moving to another state, though they often know no one in their intended new location. When I ask, “But what about your friends?” I always get the reply, “No problem, we’ll just make some new ones.” In my experience, it’s been rare to find people willing to have conversations beyond safe topics of sports, work gossip, traffic, the weather, etc,, even before politics became the very loaded subject that exists today. There are real risks in having these kinds of talks, and most people I meet prefer to focus on fun and entertainment. There are people who see each other socially on a regular basis, yet would be hard pressed to say what the other really thought about ethics, God, the death penalty, race, forgiveness, or any number of controversial topics, not the least of which is “Could they be friends with someone whose opinions differed fundamentally from their own?” True friendships create bonds of obligation and mutual trust, and at least in what I have observed, most people are leery of placing themselves in this type of relationship. It doesn’t help that our society measures success by achievement and accumulation of wealth, so it shouldn’t be surprising that young people expand almost all their time and energy attempting to reach these targets. Who has time for friendship (a far cry from the networking model of our social strivers) and personal relationships when we’re busy achieving career success? Perhaps, if we wish to avoid the loneliness which is clearly becoming epidemic, we need to start reading more books on how to be a great friend instead of a how to be the next millionaire, and start investing more into our friendships than into our 401-Ks.
Has there been anyone in your life who means a lot to you? Have you spoken lately? Call them now.