Loneliness is on the rise. This seems odd given the growth of social media that enable people to stay connected. If you are battling loneliness, you are far from alone. It’s important for you to take steps to manage your loneliness because loneliness can have significant adverse effects on your health.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. You can be alone and not feel lonely. And, conversely you can be among a crowd of people, even friends, and still experience loneliness. For research purposes, loneliness is defined as feeling lonely more than once a week.
Loneliness is a state of mind. It is more about feeling alone than being alone. What determines loneliness is the depth of our relationships, not the number of our relationships.
Now, all of us will experience loneliness at some point in our lives. So in that sense, loneliness is universal. But, the number of us who are feeling lonely more frequently is increasing dramatically.
Loneliness is on the Rise: Why?
Former U.S. Surgeon General, General Vivek Murthy, in 2017 called loneliness a gross health epidemic. The rise in loneliness is attributed in part to less face-to-face interactions which are being replaced by technology and social media.
Retirees frequently feel lonely as they no longer experience the social interaction that comes through work. Many look at retirement as purely a financial decision and many times do not consider the impact of the personal relationships they leave behind once they retire.
Dr. Murthy states that loneliness has the same impact on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So the presence of loneliness should not be taking lightly. Further below we discuss the health consequences of loneliness.
Who Experiences Loneliness?
A recent article published in October, 2019 found that loneliness peaks at three key ages. People report experiencing more moderate to severe forms of loneliness during:
- the late 20s.
- the mid 50s.
- the late 80s.
Nearly 75% of those studied reported moderate to severe loneliness confirming General Murthy’s statement that loneliness in now an epidemic. Dr. Jeste who was the senior author of the above study says, “Loneliness is defined as ‘subjective distress'” And, that loneliness is the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have.
This would explain how even people who have a lot friends can still feel lonely. Despite these relationships, they still may not have enough truly significant relationships to prevent them from becoming lonely.
And, here is something else to consider. Loneliness can be contagious. On one study 52% of those who were close to someone experiencing loneliness were more likely to experience loneliness themselves.
But, how do we explain the three age peaks when loneliness becomes more prevalent?
The Late 20s
Loneliness in the 80s and even mid 50s was expected by the researchers, but loneliness occurring during the late 20s was unexpected. They offered this explanation for loneliness occurring during the late 20s.
The late 20s is a period of major decision-making which can be stressful. There can be a tendency to think your friends, peers, and colleagues have made better decisions than you leading to guilt (and lack of confidence – our added opinion). Regardless, the late 20s are a period of stress and loneliness and stress and are intimately linked.
In our minds, it could be also a generational difference, too. The current generation has largely delayed making major (life-altering) decisions as compared to older generations who fought wars in their late teens, got married much earlier, started a family sooner, and bought homes at earlier age.
Each time we make a major decision we become better equipped to make the next major decision. Today’s generations of 20-30 years is starting that process later.
The mid-50s is associate with the mid-life crisis. People begin to realize they are not going to live forever, they see their health decline, they are caring for ill parents, and still have well-founded concerns with their kids. Many times a loss of a job occurs during this time, and marital issues become more common.
Basically, the mid-50s is a period where people are squeezed and pulled at the same time in all directions. They have less time for themselves which can contribute to loneliness.
Pretty much everything is going downhill once we reach the late 80s. In addition to the anticipated health issues and financial issues that occur at this age, the death of a spouse or even an adult child can lead to loneliness and despair. Friends have died off, the elderly become less mobile and the opportunity to maintain deep relationship declines significantly.
The Health Consequences of Loneliness
There are many health consequences related to loneliness. These include:
- Depression and suicide.
- Increased stress.
- Stroke and cardiovascular disease.
- Poor decision-making.
- Alcoholism and drug abuse.
- Decreased memory and ability to learn
- Progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
- Antisocial behavior.
- Altered cognitive function.
- Tendency to become less physically active.
- Tendency to less health diets.
- Poor sleep.
How do You Battle Loneliness?
If you find yourself battling loneliness, what should do?
First, realize that everyone feels loneliness at one time or another. Secondly, loneliness is a sign or symptom that something needs to change in your life. And, making a change requires taking some type of action. So loneliness is not likely to resolve from passivity.
Here are some things that you can do to battle loneliness.
- Get involved in community service. Frequently, when we think more of others and take care of their needs we focus less on ourselves and therefore, our problems. Also, doing something for someone else makes us feel good about ourselves.
- Develop relationships with people who share similar interests, similar views/opinions, and similar values as you.
- Get in touch with nature. Go for a walk, smell the roses, listen to the sounds of nature. Marvel at the world you live in. All of this takes your attention off of yourself.
- Spend more time in face to face relationships and limit time on social media, texting, and speaking on the phone. Real human interaction occurs face to face.
- Think about all the people who love you. Be grateful for them. Reflect on how they have impacted your life. Also, it’s been said that if you truly know how much God loves you cannot not love him back.
- Take up a new activity especially a class activity or become involved in a new hobby. Learning something new is interesting and exciting and exposes you to others you may have not know existed.
- Think positively and be optimistic. Loneliness leads many times to depressive thoughts. You have to break that cycle. Look for the postive in every circumstance. See setbacks has learning experiences, and not failure.