Loneliness is Lethal

Quick Summary: Loneliness is a scourge of our time, a detriment to our happiness, and has a major impact on our health. Friendship and community are the answer. Help us build it.


Humans are Social Animals

Humans are inherently social animals– that our well-being and development are closely tied to our interactions and relationships with others.

We have an innate need for social connection and belonging. From early infancy, we seek closeness and interaction with caregivers and develop strong emotional bonds. Throughout our lives, we continuously seek out relationships with family, friends, and communities to fulfill our social needs.

Humans evolved in the context of cooperative behavior. Cooperation allows us to achieve tasks that would be challenging or impossible to accomplish individually, leading to the development of complex societies and cultures. More to point, in early human development, exile from community and society was literally a death sentence– we cannot survive without others.

The social nature of humans is fundamental to our existence, shaping our development, relationships, and overall well-being. Our ability to connect, communicate, cooperate, and empathize with others is a core part of what makes us human. It is also a core part of what makes us healthy and happy.

Loneliness vs. Being Alone

Loneliness and being alone are not the same; they are concepts with different implications for our emotional state and social connections. Being alone simply refers to a state of physical solitude or being without others, while loneliness is a subjective feeling of isolation or disconnection, regardless of whether one is surrounded by people or not. Loneliness is the emotional experience and perception of lacking meaningful social connections, whereas being alone can be a temporary state that may or may not involve feelings of loneliness.

When we are alone, we may intentionally seek solitude– or, solitude may be a result of circumstances. Being alone can provide an opportunity for self-reflection, relaxation, and engaging in personal interests. It can be a positive and rejuvenating experience, offering us time to recharge and engage in self-care. Being alone does not necessarily imply feelings of loneliness and can be a chosen state of solitude that promotes introspection and personal growth.

On the other hand, loneliness refers to a deeper emotional state characterized by a sense of social isolation, disconnectedness, or a lack of meaningful connections with others. Loneliness often arises when there is a perceived discrepancy between our desired level of social interaction and the actual level of social interaction we experience. Loneliness can occur even when surrounded by others if the relationships are superficial or lacking in emotional intimacy.

Loneliness and Health

Loneliness has a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental well-being. Loneliness predicts increased mortality risk and an increased risk of premature death. Prolonged social isolation and lack of social support can negatively impact overall health, leading to a higher mortality rate. In fact, the health impact of loneliness is as significant as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Prolonged loneliness can contribute to the development of depression, anxiety, and increased stress levels. Chronic loneliness has been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of developing conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Social interaction and engagement are important for maintaining cognitive function and mental sharpness, and the lack of social interaction leads to decline.

Research shows that chronic loneliness is linked to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Loneliness can impair the functioning of our immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Studies have shown that lonely individuals may have reduced immune responses and slower wound healing. Being lonely disrupts sleep patterns and quality. Insomnia and poor sleep are often associated with feelings of loneliness, leading to a cycle where inadequate sleep further exacerbates feelings of isolation and loneliness.

When we feel lonely are likely more prone to adopting unhealthy lifestyle habits such as poor nutrition, sedentary behavior, excessive alcohol consumption, or smoking.

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Why Loneliness is Everywhere

The society in which we live has seen a notable rise in feelings of isolation and a loss of community. Many factors have contributed to this trend.

While technology has connected people across vast distances, it has also led to increased virtual interactions at the expense of face-to-face connections. Social media, online gaming, and digital communication platforms have become primary means of socializing, often replacing in-person interactions. This shift can lead to a sense of superficial connection and isolation, as online interactions often lack the depth and authenticity of in-person relationships.

Our society tends to be fast-paced, with long working hours and demanding schedules. Many individuals struggle to find time for meaningful social interactions and community engagement. The emphasis on productivity and individual success can leave little room for nurturing relationships and participating in community activities.

The traditional family structure has evolved, with an increase in single-person households, dual-income families, and a decline in multi-generational living arrangements. These changes can impact social support systems and diminish opportunities for intergenerational connections and community ties.

We have seen a rise in individualism, which often prioritizes personal fulfillment over community engagement. The pursuit of individual goals and self-reliance may contribute to a diminished sense of collective responsibility and reduced social cohesion.

Social institutions, such as religious organizations, community groups, and civic organizations, have traditionally played a significant role in fostering social connections, providing a sense of belonging, and promoting community engagement. However, various societal changes have led to a decline in the influence and effectiveness of these institutions.

Not long ago, religious communities served as a source of social support, a place for meaningful connections, and a framework for shared values and beliefs. However, over recent decades, religious affiliation and participation have declined in some regions. As a result, individuals may experience a loss of the social networks and support systems that religious institutions have historically provided. Unfortunately, other institutions have been slow to replace this.

The erosion of community-based organizations and local social networks has contributed to the decline of social institutions. As a result, people may feel disconnected from their immediate physical environments and have limited access to local support networks and community engagement.

What I see, and where we are going

I see the pervasiveness of loneliness, and its negative effects in the office every day. Many of the problems that present as medical problems would more accurately be characterized as loneliness. There is no pill for loneliness, and trying to solve loneliness by treating symptoms doesn’t follow the advice of understanding the problem. So, if loneliness is the problem, what’s the solution?

Community.

Connection.

Friendship.

We are going to try and build this, and we will need your help. Community and friendship are, inherently, not something to be done alone. I previously wrote about the difference between goals and intentions. We are setting the intention to help build community and foster connections.

Trying to build community is a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal). I don’t know exactly how it will go, or what kind of success we will have. However, it is a core problem, and if we get the big things right, the little things take care of themselves.

We are finishing up an office remodel and will have a space to meet. We are planning on starting groups again in the next couple of months. We are thinking creatively about how to help people connect. Help us think about this! What is interesting to you? What would you show up for? What would you like to see? Next time you are in, let us know or send me an email.

-Dr. Justin