I often complain — rather gratuitously, I now realize — that I don’t have a moment to myself. Responsibilities and relationships tug at my time, and hardly a day goes by without being surrounded by friends, coworkers, and strangers.
Not sure how I got so lucky.
I’m not being sarcastic, either. Lately I’ve been nudged into recognizing that my complaints would count as someone else’s blessings. There are plenty of people who would welcome the good fortune of a deep-bench, as they say in hockey, a large support network.
Loneliness, as it turns out, has become an epidemic, which is not only sad but extremely ironic. We live in a world where we can connect instantly with an acquaintance halfway across the world. An abundance of social media allows us to enjoy a grandchild’s first steps in real time and chat with friends in different cities all over the world even when we’re stuck at the office. Technology has enabled us to reach out and touch someone, at least virtually, whenever and wherever.
And yet, loneliness is spreading as contagious as a flu bug. Earlier this year, a national survey by a global health care company found that almost half of all Americans reported feeling alone either sometimes or always, and more than a quarter of respondents reported they rarely or never felt they were understood. Sadder still, two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.
It was the younger folk, not the elderly, who lamented their loneliness most – not a huge surprise (I believe there are more lonely elderly people than lonely young people, but that the older you are the less likely you are to complain about it. That’s just my estimation, though). But what really bothered me about the numbers wasn’t the demographics but the details of the perception of the isolation. One in five Americans reported rarely or never feeling close to people, and 18 per cent said they don’t have someone to talk to.
I’m going to keep that stat in my mind so I don’t take for granted the relief of venting to a friend. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have no one to come home to, to not hear voices in my house and have someone to tell about my day and ask about theirs. It’s a matter of sanity, in my case, to have that.
The report’s findings shouldn’t come as much of a shock, however. It actually echoes other surveys and mental health professionals’ warnings over the past decade or so, in many first world countries. Social isolation has become a national problem not just in the U.S. and Canada, but also in Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom. A few months back, the British government even named a minister for loneliness and launched a government-wide strategy to tackle the issue.
A loneliness minister. That’s how bad it’s gotten. And maybe not a bad decision, either, since social isolation has been linked to serious health conditions, including depression and higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation. These issues can lead to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and even dementia. In an analysis of various studies, researchers from the World Health Organization concluded that loneliness was equal to or greater than several other health risk factors, such as obesity and smoking. The WHO even lists “social support networks” as a factor in good health.
We may think that the holidays prove worse for those who feel alone, but the existing research says that loneliness is a year round problem. In fact, because we’re conscious of sharing good cheer, we make it a point to include people during the holidays. So the new co-worker living far from family or the recently widowed neighbour likely have a better chance of being included in festivities than at any other time of year.
But what about in February or April, when goodwill has been folded into the grind of daily life? Maybe we should consider extending invitations not just for the big turkey dinner at Christmas, but for a nice lunch a few months down the road. Maybe we must recognize that a text is not the same as an in-person conversation, and a Facebook post is no substitute for the presence of a good friend. And maybe, too, we should learn to appreciate being constantly surrounded by humans.