How loneliness threatens your health and happiness

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Let's pretend today was awful. Pretty much the worst day ever. Pick whatever circumstances that might be. A fight with your kids or significant other. The car breaks down. You lose your job thanks to cut-backs.

Whatever the circumstances, on tough days like this, do you have someone you can confide in?

If you answered no, you are not alone. In fact, a large number of people in the U.S. feel lonely. An AARP survey from 2010 shows that 40-45% of Americans were lonely. That's up from 11-20% in the 1970's and 80's. Five to seven percent said they felt intense and/or persistent loneliness.

WE ARE LONELIER THAN EVER

Psychologists agree that social connections are essential to our development, well-being, and health. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, social connections are the third most essential psychological need. They are preceded only by physiological (think food) and safety (think shelter).

The factors for our growing loneliness are plenty.

Many of us no longer live in our hometowns. We are miles away from our family and the people we knew while growing up. In fact, we may even move great distances several times in our adulthood.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy suggests that a lack of social connections in the workplace also contributes to loneliness. In most offices, we spend more time emailing or using Slack than meeting face-to-face. And many workers now telecommute, isolating themselves from daily interactions with co-workers.

For those of us in midlife, our demanding schedules leave little room for socializing with friends. Our children may have moved out or are distancing themselves from us. And our parents may have passed or suffer from declining health.

To find out how lonely you may be, try this short quiz developed from the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Everyone is different

Two people can be in the exact same circumstances and one can feel lonely while the other is loving life.

Our genetics and our environment determine how much isolation we can endure. Some people genetically prefer more seclusion that others. And there are specific forms of social connection that work better for me than for you.

Of course, genetics is less than half (around 45%) of how we react to social isolation. The greater influence to our experience of loneliness is environmental factors. This includes our own perceptions of our social interactions.

Consider this: one woman grew up in a small town filled with family members. The large and extended family had Sunday lunch together every week. She shared a bedroom with one of their siblings. People were always running into and out of the house. This woman couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone she’s known since birth.

The second woman was an only child with a single parent. She loved to read alone in her room. They lived in a big city, in an apartment building. She only interacted with the couple next door when they babysat her. She only saw her small, extended family on the holidays, and usually it was only her grandparents.

It's logical that no matter their genetic predisposition, the vastly different experiences of these two women will shape how they perceive social isolation.

It’s also important to note that our loneliness is not representative of our social skills.

Feeling lonely does not mean that we have deficient social skills. Problems arise when feeling lonely makes us less likely to employ the skills we have.
— — JOHN CACIOPPO, DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO'S CENTER FOR COGNITIVE AND SOCIAL NEUROSCIENCE

The toll of loneliness

We've all had moments, here or there, when we feel a little lonely. Maybe we're single in a room of couples or can't visit family for the holidays. These bouts of loneliness aren't damaging. But chronic loneliness diminishes our life satisfaction and our health and longevity.

Loneliness is not designed to be chronic; instead, it’s very much like physical pain or hunger. It’s an aversive cue that alerts you to pay attention.
— Cacioppo

As a social animal, humans rely on others to survive and thrive. Surrounding ourselves with safe, secure social connections lessens the need to be vigilant to threats. If you've ever watched Meerkat Manor, you know that having others around to sound the alarm can be a lifesaver.

For social creatures, social isolation can be a death threat, or at least it could be in our evolutionary past. Loneliness is the upsetting feelings associated with our perception of social isolation. It's that red alarm that reminds us to seek out others.

It's not surprising to find that loneliness contributes to health issues. Scientists have shown that loneliness, particularly chronic loneliness, is associated with

  • depression
  • impaired sleep
  • impaired cognitive function
  • increased systolic blood pressure
  • impaired anti-inflammatory response
  • altered immunity

Being chronically lonely is even associated with an earlier death. And lonely people in midlife are more likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life.

Friends or family

Research shows that when it comes to social connections, family connections are important. But it's friendship that matters most.

A study out of Michigan State University on older adults with chronic conditions found that both friends and family influenced overall health. But, friendships were a stronger predictor of health and happiness. On the flip side, unhealthy friendships led to increased chronic conditions.

We can't pick our family. But we can choose our friends. If a friendship isn't working out, you move on. But a positive friendship takes an investment of time, energy, and emotion. You keep these folks around because they make you feel safe, secure, and cared for.

 

There's just one problem. Many people find it much harder to create and maintain friendships when they reach midlife. So for the next few weeks, I'll be exploring the topic of friendship in our 40's and 50's. What does it mean to be a friend, how do we maintain friendships, and how do we create brand new ones?


Sources:

Cacioppo, John T. and William Patrick. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company. Aug. 10, 2009.

Entis, Laura. "Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic." Fortune, Jun. 22, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/. Accessed Nov. 1, 2017.

Kerr, Nancy. "The Loneliness Epidemic: A former surgeon general says the workplace is key to building connections." AARP, Oct. 4, 2017. https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2017/workplace-ways-to-overcome-loneliness-fd.html. Accessed Nov. 1, 2017.

Seppala, Emma, et al. “Social Connection and Compassion: Important Predictors of Health and Well-Being.” Social Research, vol. 80, no. 2, 2013, pp. 411–430. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24385608.