Loneliness is killing us!
We may think we are connected, but this an illusion. Too many people are feeling lonely and especially younger people. Articles on loneliness are published daily. This CBS Sunday Morning segment on loneliness and suicide got my attention and I could not stop thinking about it. And this was all before the Covid-19 pandemic. The big fear is more people are feeling lonelier than ever because of social isolation.
Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, concluded loneliness is a public health crisis. In a report, he stated social isolation is a more serious health problem than opiates. “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” It is connected, he wrote, “with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”
In this post, I am going to share why we should care and what each of us can do about it.
Why We Should Care
We should care because many people spend more time at work with co-workers than at home with family members. We should care about the people with whom we surround ourselves. I listened to Kate Bowler’s podcast Everything Happens where she interviews Dr. Vivek Murthy. According to surveys, the loneliness epidemic affects about 20% of adults in the United States. This impacts our health, workplace engagement, and school performance. These people could be family members, co-workers, friends, and neighbors.
Dr. Murthy’s physical therapist once said to him, “Strength is the padding that you need in life. It makes you less susceptible to injury.” Dr. Murthy translated that quote to be, “Relationships are the padding we need in life to help sustain us and enable us to handle adversity. Relationships are the cushion we need in life.” Men are, particularly at risk since being vulnerable is a challenge for many of them. Loneliness is an epidemic.
David Brooks in his book The Second Mountain reports that the suicide rate in the United States has risen by 30 percent since 1999. From 2006 to 2016, suicide rates among ten- to seventeen-year-olds rose by 70 percent. In 2018, the average American lifespan declined for the third straight year; the last time this happened was from 1915 to 1918 during World War I. Brooks attributes all of these horrible statistics to the loneliness crisis that results from hyper-individualism. A recent segment on CBS Sunday Morning was about the rising suicide rate. In fact, suicide rates are the highest since WWII and combined with the opioid epidemic the U.S. life expectancy has actually decreased for three years in a row. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are now twice as many suicides as homicides.
What We Can Do About It
Where technology was considered to be a driver causing isolation, it is now being used personally and professionally to connect us. Organizations and people are getting creative in conducting work and in socializing. In fact, one colleague said, “I am socializing more now than before social isolation started.”
But many people are still lonely and alone. Interestingly, what helps people who are lonely, depressed, and/or suicidal is to have at least one person reach out to them. Often it is hard for the person who is lonely to initiate. So we need to reach out to them and this article tells how simple little acts can make a significant difference.
The CBS Sunday Morning segment talked about how one person can make a difference. This reminded me of a national higher education conference I attended several years ago. I had the opportunity to hear a keynote by Dr. Arthur Levine when he was the President of Teachers College at Columbia University. His book, Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College, co-authored by Jana Nidiffer had just been released. They studied how underprivileged youth made it to college. After hundreds of interviews, one of their main conclusions was that each one of them could identify one person who helped them get to college. One person. This could be anyone who played the role of mentor and took an interest in them. All it took was one person to show the way and give them support. You can be that one person for someone in your sphere of influence or in your life.
The bottom line is real social connections are powerful. Face time. These connections enable us to communicate, provide support, and give encouragement. Pay attention to non-verbal–body language. It is hard to ask for help. Have your antennas up! The person who has the most influence should initiate. Reach out and let them know you care. This makes a difference. People want to “be seen” –to be known and appreciated. Eye contact is important. Start today.
“Relationships are the padding in life that sustains us.”
Who might be lonely and you could reach out to them?
Who could you mentor, teach, or guide?
If you are lonely, let someone know.