Loneliness: The Pandemic Inside the Pandemic

image source: nalc.gov.uk

Loneliness is a big problem, and the pandemic is making it worse. Here’s how an article on Vox puts it:

The coronavirus pandemic has created a loneliness epidemic. Social distancing, while necessary from a public health standpoint, has caused a collapse in social contact among family, friends, and entire communities — one that is particularly hard on populations already most vulnerable to isolation.

But Americans were experiencing a loneliness crisis long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. In a 2018 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 percent of all adults in the US — almost 60 million Americans — said they often or always felt lonely or socially isolated. The problem is even more concentrated among older adults: A major National Academies of Sciences report from February found that a little more than a third of adults over the age of 45, and 43 percent of adults over 60, felt lonely (other surveys have returned similar results).

Loneliness isn’t simply painful; it can be lethal. Several meta-analyses have found the mortality risk associated with chronic loneliness is higher than that of obesity and equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

The article goes on to interview former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Murthy’s new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, is about this loneliness epidemic that has taken hold across much of the Western world.

You can read the article with the interview here.

If you prefer listening to podcasts, check out this excellent interview of Murthy on Ezra Klein’s podcast:

Vivek Murthy and Ezra Klein discussed the loneliness epidemic on The Ezra Klein Show in October 2019. You can listen to the podcast by streaming it below or subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show or wherever you get your podcasts.

As Murthy makes clear from his own experience: the feeling of loneliness and social isolation has nothing to do with how many people are around you. A person can have a busy life, and be immersed in a complex web of relationships, and still feel profoundly lonely. In fact, he says that one of the loneliest times of his life was when he was the Surgeon General. He was a busy as a person could be, and he was surrounded by tons of people all the time … but at the same time lacked meaningful connections, and felt isolated. Just because you have people around you doesn’t mean you are immersed in genuine community.

The Flip Side: Social Connection as a Health and Longevity Hack

This week I also came across a great article that talked about this same subject, but in a completely different way: social connection as a health and longevity strategy. Listen to this:

According to a growing body of research, some of the most influential factors shaping longevity don’t cost a dime. Scientists called these factors soft health drivers. These include social networks, relationships, kindness, conscientiousness, optimism, and volunteerism. They can make everyday living better — and add years to your life.

Whereas diet and exercise are important, the social connection and the soft drivers of health — how you live your life, mentally, and socially — are even more important,” science journalist Marta Zaraska tells Inverse.

Zaraska recently synthesized the bulk of research on soft health drivers in her book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.

These drivers can reduce mortality from 45 percent up to 65 percent. Unlike most wellness fads, they’re pleasurable — no cutting back on something you love — and a lot easier than sticking to the latest diet or popping supplements.

You can read the full article here.

Let me leave you with one other quote from the article, with an absolutely mind-boggling statistical insight:

What you eat and how you move your body still matter for living long: Diet and exercise can lower our mortality risk by about 35 percent. But at the same time, social connections — with romantic partners, friends, community members, and neighbors — can lower the mortality risk by about 45 percent to 65 percent.

So what are you going to DO about this?

Thus far, I’ve shared information, and I hope it’s been helpful and interesting. But just having more information won’t help us if we don’t do something about it. Here are some suggested next steps:

  1. Decide that this is important. You and I are not going to take new steps towards deepening our social connections unless we commit to it. Of course the pandemic is making social connection harder. But it’s not just that. Keep in mind that loneliness and isolation have been identified as a crisis in the Western world long before the pandemic hit. So many things in our world work to keep us busy, distracted, and socially isolated. Changing this requires a commitment.
  2. Get and read Vivek Murthy’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. The final third of the book is devoted to suggestions for “Building a More Connected Life.” The strategies are not all about making massive changes … some are little things. Read the book and think about what you are willing and able to do. If you’re not a reader, then at least listen to the podcast I linked to above.
  3. Plan on two levels. Think about what you can do both during and after the current social-distancing, socially-isolated times: (1) First think of things to do right now, in the midst of the pandemic. What can you do to “get through” this time? It could be as simple as setting the intention of making several phone calls or video chats with friends or family each week. (2) Second think of things to do once we emerge into the post-pandemic new normal. What can you do to build more community in the new life you want to build for yourself?
  4. Think in terms of reaching out and being a friend, rather than expecting people to reach out to you. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. One of the strengths of Murthy’s work is that he recognizes and emphasizes this. The way we break out of isolation is to take small steps to connect with others, to get outside of our own self-absorption, and show care to someone else. We reach out to them, we try to help them; and in the process, we find our own needs for connection being met. The odds are, the person you are reaching out to is feeling isolated and lonely too.
  5. Explore connection with a faith community. For generations, people have relied on two sources of community to help them feel connected to others: their nuclear family and their church (spiritual family). It’s no accident that we’re facing an epidemic of loneliness at precisely the time when large numbers of people are leaving their churches (and even those staying connected to churches, loosening those connections and being less involved). I know that churches are not always safe and healthy places — believe me, I’ve heard peoples’ horror stories. But the solution to dysfunctional community is not isolation … it’s getting into a healthy community.