The Loneliness Epidemic
Did you know that loneliness is one of the leading causes of death in our world today?
Isolation is no joke. Loneliness actually increases the risk for premature mortality among all ages, while one recent study indicates that social isolation and loneliness kill more people than obesity. Isolation is linked to a number of dysfunctional immune responses and increased blood pressure, which impact our overall wellbeing. In fact, researchers saw that people who were lonelier produced more inflammation-related proteins in response to stress than did people that were more socially connected, which are associated with numerous conditions including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
On the emotional side, humans need deep and meaningful relationships within which to develop their identity and to thrive in life. The absence of these relationships can often lead to suicide. We need to take loneliness very seriously, as every 40 seconds someone takes their life.
It is easy in today’s age to have access to any number of readily accessible stimuli through social media, email, text, face time, skype, chat rooms—you name it. Although we now have the world at our fingertips, yet, paradoxically, more and more of us live solitary, futile lives. More and more of us, of all ages, prefer aimlessly scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, online shopping apps or random things on our smart phones or devices than going out for coffee with a friend or talking with our neighbors. Although we are more connected, we are more isolatedand disconnected than ever before.
Technology and social media can, of course, be wonderful. Yet we need to make these mediums of communication work for us, not control us. The more removed we become from human connection, the more potential there is for us to turn to the fantasy world as a replacement for reality rather than using our imagination as a tool to create successful and satisfying lives. We all, to a certain extent, fantasize about how things could or should be, and this imagining often encourages us to pursue our dreams. Yet our imagination should not be divorced from real life; otherwise our fantasies can become more important to us than reality. When our fantasies get that important, they often lead to long-term social isolation, which can dramatically affect our mental health and reduce our lifespan.
Loneliness by its very nature is not something we can fix by ourselves. As I discuss in my latest book, Think, Learn, Succeed, we need to develop a “community mindset” if we want to thrive in life, and if we want to help others as well.
How can we deal with the loneliness epidemic?
- Have Meaningful Discussions. Make your conversations matter, whether you are speaking with your spouse while making dinner, or your kids in the car to school, or grabbing coffee with a colleague, or at lunch with a friend. Choose to initiate and keep a discussion going, even if you have to search around for topics or don’t always agree. Everyone loves to talk about themselves or get praise and encouragement, so that could be your icebreaker! Take the time to listen to people’s stories. Everyone has a unique story and something to share—something you can learn from! Be sure not to just hear, but try to listen to people without judgement.
- Volunteer. Serving others is a wonderful way to become part of a meaningful community, improving both your mental and physical health—studies show how helping others can increase your own chance of healing! Join a local institution, spiritual center or non-profit organization and see what you can do to help.Some of our favourite organisations to volunteer for are Food Forward in Los Angeles, the SPCA and Bonton Farms in Dallas, TX.
- Switch off Your Phone. The average person spends up to eight hours a day using technology. Some of the worst effects of electronic devices seem to be mitigated when devices are used less than two hours a day. Find ways to limit your use of technology throughout the day, and increase your face-to-face interaction with your loved ones. Maybe put your phone aside when you are eating. Or leave it at home when you go for a walk. For more information see my podcast on social media.
- Get Out the House. Think about what you could do to get out of the house and foster community in your area. Perhaps start a book club, a hiking meet-up or arrange dinner parties and invite someone new each time. Get to know your neighbors and invite them for a walk or for coffee, or join a local community or spiritual center. The possibilities are endless. This may be a little uncomfortable at first but just remember everyone loves to be included, and you never know who may be really struggling with loneliness. The simple act of reaching out may be what helps someone heal!
- Be Friendly. When you are in a small space with a stranger, such as an elevator, smile and say hello instead of looking at the floor or your phone. Think of ways to start a conversation!
- Reach Out.When you feel burdened with work, emotionally challenged, or are going through something, try stopping for a moment and helping someone else, even if it is just to listen, hug, or encourage them. Send an email or text to someone, telling them you are thinking of them, or invite someone to dinner instead of eating alone. Develop a habit of reaching out to friends, family, and colleagues and see if they need anything, even if you just send them a little word of encouragement now and then! If you are struggling with loneliness, talk to someone. Finding life difficult at times is not something to be ashamed of, while supressing emotions will only make matters worse. Talk to a friend, a family member, a local counselor, or an online help center. The key to healing is not in pretending you are always okay; rather, healing comes from being proactive in seeking help and helping others.
For more information on how to develop healthy habits and mindsets that deal with loneliness see my book Think, Learn, Succeed.