Loneliness can be hazardous to our health
Research sheds new light on a possible cause and cure.
Posted May 2, 2019
Have you been feeling lonely lately? The latest Cigna study found an alarming increase in loneliness in Americans. Nearly half of those surveyed reported feeling alone (46%) or left out (47%), 27% felt that no one understands them, and 43% felt isolated with no meaningful relationships (Polack, 2018). That adds up to millions of lonely Americans.
Research has found that loneliness is a hazard to our mental and physical health, that a sense of community is a basic need (Umberson & Montez, 2010). Loneliness is associated with a number of health risks including a weakened immune system, increased inflammation, high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, eating disorders, obesity, and depression (Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010; Twenge, Spitzberg, & Campbell, 2019).
The Cigna study found that young people between 18 and 22 are the loneliest demographic group (Polack, 2018). New research on adolescents by psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues points to some reasons why. Adolescents in the 2010s spent significantly less in-person time with friends than previous generations—less time socializing, dating, going to the mall, the movies, or parties, or riding in cars for fun. Adolescents’ feelings of loneliness increased sharply after 2011 at the same time that digital media use increased and the loneliest teens in the study spent the most time on social media (Twenge, et al, 2019).
One way to reverse this unhealthy trend is to consciously connect with the people around you in what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (2013) calls “micro-moments” of connectivity. You can make these connections not only with close friends and family members but the grocery store clerk or anyone else you encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that’s all it takes. These connections benefit both people—to give is to receive--dramatically improving our health, raising our mood, relieving stress, and reducing inflammation to promote greater physical and emotional well-being (Fredrickson, 2013).
Fredrickson says that “studies of actual social networks shows that, over time, happiness spreads through whole communities” in a positive ripple effect (2013, p. 61).
What about trying Fredrickson’s simple technique, creating three micro-moments of connectivity today? You can do this with:
- friends and family,
- or the clerk at the grocery store.
Then notice how you feel and what a difference it makes in your life.
Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L.C., & Thisted, R.A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging, 25, 453-463.
Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press. See her short video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxxIh8NtGfw
Polack, E. (2018, May 1). New Cigna study reveals loneliness at epidemic levels in America. https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america
Twenge, J. M., Spitzberg, B. H., Campbell, W. K. (2019). Less in-person social interaction with peers among U.S. adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 20 (10), 1-22.
Umberson, D., Montez, J. K. (2010).Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51 (1). S54 - S66.
Photo. Lonely boy by Arief Rahman Saan (Ezagren). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lonely_boy.jpg