The loneliness epidemic

 

Feeling disconnected from others has become a public health crisis.

Story by Amanda Kingsbury

Last spring, after becoming frustrated by a this-is-going-nowhere text exchange with the man she was dating, Samantha Simpson posted a brief question to her Facebook friends.

“Do you ever get lonely?”

It was 11 p.m. on a Thursday. By early Friday, the 38-year-old lifestyle coach from Indianapolis, Indiana, had more than 100 responses.

More than I’d like to admit, one man commented. Even around people.

Sometimes, but that is what my guitar is for! a woman wrote. She heals all wounds.

“I felt the need to connect with people that night,” Simpson says, “and it was too late for a heart-to-heart call with a friend.” 

An elephant sitting on a bank.

Starting the Facebook conversation took some courage. Most people see their feelings of disconnect as a personal failing, especially in a world where your social value is measured in likes and followers. But Stephanie Cacioppo, a behavioral neuroscientist and director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago, estimates one in three people feel lonely, with one in 12 “severely affected.” In 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that loneliness had reached “epidemic proportions.” 

The growing sense of isolation has spun off creative solutions around the globe. Last year, the U.K. appointed a “minister of loneliness” after research showed that 9 million people, or about 15 percent of the population, felt lonely “always or often.” 

In Japan, agencies rent out “replacement” relatives — actors who convincingly portray grandkids, parents or even a fake fiancé. One lonely widower, featured in a 2018 New Yorker article, paid for a stand-in wife and adult daughter to join him on outings. Often, they just ate dinner and watched TV together in his home. 

Worldwide, a professional cuddling industry is embracing people’s need for caring, platonic touch. From Canada to Australia, men and women are paying $80 to $100 an hour to be held, hugged and nurtured in non-sexual ways by trained practitioners. 

“Touch is a very under-utilized tool for addressing loneliness,” says Epiphany Jordan, a professional cuddler who gave a talk at the 2019 SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas. “A lot of times, people don’t realize it is the thing they are missing. We need to be close to others.”

Yet it’s increasingly easy to avoid human contact, thanks to food-delivery drones, Hulu, Peloton bikes and driverless ride-share services. Humans are wired to be socially dependent. Feeling excluded threatens your sense of security, and that causes stress. Too much stress can lead to inflammation, which has been linked to diseases such as cancer, dementia and heart failure. The “scariest” statistic Murthy offered is this: Chronic loneliness is worse on your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

“This is a profound issue and it has public health implications,” he told the Washington Post. “People who are lonely live shorter lives.” 

The social reasons given for the loneliness epidemic are broad. Too much work, and not enough life, on the work-life balance scale. People are marrying later, if at all. Families are spread out geographically. Once-valued civic institutions, including churches and service organizations, are losing members. More people are living alone. 

Little boy and an elephant sits on a bank

But being physically alone doesn’t mean being lonely. Loneliness is a state of mind, a disconnect between what you want from your relationships and what you experience in those relationships, Cacioppo says. People who are married can feel profoundly lonely. So can Instagram influencers who have 3 million followers. For Simpson, loneliness peaks when she compares herself to others, or struggles to appear relevant and interesting in social situations.

“It’s the feeling I get after having said something that pushes another person away,” she says. 

Loneliness is often associated with single people, along with the elderly — the widowed or retired. Often overlooked are children and young adults. A surprising 2018 Cigna study of 20,000 U.S. adults declared Generation Z, ages 18 to 22, the “loneliest generation.” That same year, the U.K.’s National Office of Statistics reported that one in 10 kids ages 10 to 15 feels lonely. 

People are quick to point fingers at Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms — and the idea that the fear, rage and envy they can provoke leads to distrust, not connection. Researchers have found correlations between heavy social-media use and feelings of isolation among teens and young adults, but say more studies are needed to answer the question: Do lonely people tend to seek out a lot of online interactions, or do online interactions make people feel excluded? 

Young people are more susceptible to loneliness, the U.K. report found, during life’s major transitions — the shifts to middle school, to high school and to college, and then onto the demands of DIY adulting, which could partly explain Gen Z’s struggles. Parents, teachers and other adults should keep a special eye out for children who are bullied, grieving, facing chronic health challenges or living in single-parent households. The study also found that kids in cities feel lonelier than their peers in rural areas.

The questions the U.K. researchers asked during their in-depth interviews could inspire open conversations with children, who often feel shame because they think loneliness is their fault. Things to ask: How often do you feel that you have no one to talk to? How often do you feel left out? How often do you feel alone? 

Working with children now can prevent a lifetime of loneliness. And treating loneliness — in our children, our parents, our neighbors, even strangers — is our “collective responsibility,” said Cacioppo, who, along with her late husband, John Cacioppo, pioneered research into loneliness. She and other scientists at the University of Chicago are doing clinical trials on a pharmacological intervention, or “loneliness pill,” to treat the ways chronic isolation affects the brain and body.  

In some communities, people are fighting loneliness by creating programs to help people connect. In Vermont, Adult Family Care invites families to open their homes to care for elderly strangers, who pay room and board. The state also pays the caregivers a daily rate. As part of its national strategy to reduce loneliness, the U.K. is looking at giving seed money to neighborhoods so they can organize activities and build green spaces.

And some influential thinkers, including author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, are calling for the return of civic organizations and social institutions of earlier times. In his latest book, “Team Human,” he also encourages people to live more of their lives without “digital crutches,” to leave their house and talk to people, and to have real face time, instead of on-screen FaceTime, with friends and family. Making these meaningful connections off-line, he believes, will make people less distrustful of each other.

“I don’t think humans are the problem, I think humans are the solution,” Rushkoff told Nesta.org last year. For him, the cure for loneliness and disconnect could come down to a simple recognition: “Being human is a team sport.”  

It was that kind of solidarity that Simpson was looking for when she posted her inquiry on Facebook. She was surprised by the handful of people who said they never get lonely, joking that “they have ascended to a monk-like state of nirvana, or they’re lying.” Overall, the compassion and honesty of the responses gave her hope, especially on a night when she was “feeling shame” about her struggles to connect with people. Now, whenever she’s hit by loneliness, she uses it as an opportunity to work on self-love and social skills. 

Recently, Simpson even did a speaking event. The title? “How to Feel Comfortable in All Social Situations.”

“It’s funny,” she said, “how those things work out.”


This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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