Updated: Apr 7, 2022
One Is the Loneliest Number: How Loneliness Affects All Parts of Life
There are many times through our lifespan when we naturally experience feelings of loneliness. Children can feel lonely when no one wants to play with them on the playground. Teenagers and young adults may experience a sense of loneliness when they move out on their own and don’t have their old social connections to fall back on. We can also experience loneliness during other transition times in life--losing a job, moving to a new city, divorce, prolonged illness, etc. Older adults can also be lonely when they retire, lose friends and loved ones, or live far away from their family and children.
We usually think of older adults as the most lonely, but would you be surprised to know that the older generation is not the loneliest? The loneliest generation is actually the Millennials and Generation Z (teenagers and people in their early 20s). Some of it can be blamed on social media, where someone can have 20,000 likes, but no real connections with anyone. Anxiety is also high for this generation, which can also contribute to loneliness.
Loneliness has been described in many ways, but in order to fully understand what we mean by it, let’s take a look at what loneliness is and what it is not:
The perceived value of our social connections--the difference between the number of valuable connections we have and how many we desire
Determined by the quality of social connections
The feeling of isolation no matter what the circumstance
Loneliness is not:
The quantity of social connections
You can be in the middle of a crowded place, but if you don’t know anyone and haven’t made any connections, you can still feel very lonely.
We now know that social connections are as important for physical health as food. Loneliness can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also linked to inflammation, high cholesterol levels, obesity, and chronic pain (6). Lonely individuals are also more prone to cancer and altered gene expression (4). Higher levels of loneliness can also predict mental decline in older adults (3).
Loneliness can also start up a vicious cycle of social isolation, depression, anxiety, and stress. Those who are lonely also tend to be more isolated, which leads to depression and social anxiety and only increases feelings of loneliness.
We have a loneliness epidemic in our country. With 3 out of 4 Americans reporting feeling lonely, it is a medical as well as mental health crisis (1). We are not the only country in the world that has noticed the impact of loneliness on its population. The United Kingdom now has a minister for loneliness, after their government research found that nearly 200,000 elderly people have not had a conversation with anyone in over 30 days (6).
With statistics like these, it is hard to look for the good news among the bad. But there is good news! One piece of good is the re-affiliation motive, or RAM (5). Scientists have found that we are biologically wired to seek social connections when we find ourselves to be lonely. RAM gives us the motivation to re-connect with others around us, to seek new friendships, and to find new relationships to combat loneliness. RAM makes us move forward and not be stuck in our state of loneliness. Reconnecting with our community or finding a new one through hobbies, clubs, religious services, or community organizations is a great way to combat loneliness.
Since loneliness, depression, and isolation go hand in hand, it may be difficult for someone who is suffering from all three to get out and reach out to others. Therefore, it is also imperative to notice those people around us who are prone to social isolation. Who do you know that you can reach out to who might be lonely? As a community, it is important for all of us to look after each other and those who are struggling. That’s the other piece of good news. We have each other and together we can do a lot together to combat the epidemic of loneliness.
Do you know someone who could use a phone call or a friendly visit? How will you be the light of connection to those who are isolated and lonely?