When I transferred to a university 2,000 miles from home my second semester sophomore year, I experienced loneliness for the first time. It emerged as a physical sensation in my chest and developed into a mild depression. Four decades later, I have a large network of friends and family, including four grandchildren. I am never lonely, but I’m often alone, and I relish that quiet time.
What is the difference between being lonely and alone, and why is one dangerous to your health?
Loneliness is a complex, uncomfortable emotional response to lack of companionship and or isolation. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Studies have shown that Americans feel increasingly alone. Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed.
You might have hundreds of friends on Facebook and still be lonely. Because, according to John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 2008), social networking sites provide people with a false sense of connection that often increases loneliness in people who feel alone. Cacioppo says that social media sites should serve as a supplement to personal interaction, rather than as a replacement. He compares connecting on a Web site to eating celery: “It feels good immediately, but it doesn’t give you the same sustenance,” he says. For people who feel satisfied and loved in their day-to-day life, social media can be a reassuring extension. For those who are already lonely, Facebook status updates are just a reminder of how much better everyone else is at making friends and having fun.
How do we feel lonely?
You can be lonely in a marriage in which you have nothing in common with your spouse who is a work addict or involved in activities that don’t include you. You can feel terribly lonely, as I did, after moving to a new city where you don’t know a soul. Or you can feel lonely (and depressed) if you are adjusting to living alone in the home you shared with a deceased or divorced life partner. New parents often experience loneliness during the early months of a newborn’s life if they are on maternity leave and not interacting with their work colleagues.
Loneliness usually includes feeling anxious or depressed, and can manifest as physical, emotional, mental, and social symptoms. But feelings of depression can also lead to loneliness because often a person who is depressed doesn’t have the energy or will to make the effort to socialize.
The health risks
Older adults who describe themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death. Chronic isolation and loneliness have been linked to depression, physical decline, and even shorter lifespans. It’s a problem that can affect anyone: infants, teens or adults, and evidence suggests Americans are more socially isolated now than ever before.
Researchers have found that prolonged isolation is just as dangerous as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or alcoholism. Isolation and loneliness can:
- compromise the immune system
- contribute to depression and anxiety
- affect sleep
- increase stress hormones
- contribute to premature aging
- increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack
- contribute to cognitive decline and risk of dementia
- lead to the admission to nursing homes or the use of emergency services
- result in death
The problem of social isolation
An estimated one in five adults over age 50—at least 8 million—are affected by isolation. Although the terms isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing. Loneliness refers to how people perceive their experience and whether they feel isolated. A person can be surrounded by many people but still feel alone. Isolation, though, can be measured by such things as the size of a person’s social network, availability of transportation, and the ability to access resources and information.
Eradicating isolation has been identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare as one of its top challenges today.
Factors that put you at risk for isolation “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50,” AARP Foundation (May 2012)
- Living alone*
- Mobility or sensory impairment*
- Major life transitions or losses*
- Low income or limited financial resources
- Being a caregiver for someone with a serious condition
- Psychological or cognitive challenges
- Inadequate social support
- Rural, unsafe and/or inaccessible neighborhood
- Transportation access challenges
- Language barriers
- Age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and/or gender identity barriers
* Primary factors
Why being alone can be a good thing
I am a professional writer and require a lot of alone time. In fact, I prefer to be in my home office without anyone in the house for hours or days at a time so that I can work without interference. I am also a meditator and love to dive deep into the silence. I love to read, I love to play the piano. I enjoy my own companionship. All these things are solitary activities that strengthen my spirit and feed my soul.
Yet, I need to engage socially after a few days of being snowed in, or after a few days of spending hours at my computer. Over my lifetime, I’ve built up a reserve of people to play with, have lunch with, discuss with, and activities to engage in, and I doubt if I’ll ever feel lonely again as I did when I was 19 and moved to a strange city far from my family and friends.
Ways to feel connected
If you are feeling a lonely or isolated, get ahead of the lonely curve now to expand your social network. Don’t put it off. Getting socially connected might take some effort, but it is definitely worth it for so many reasons. You will gain friendship, companionship, better health, and in the process you will be giving of yourself, which is the best gift of all.
Here are some ideas to help you get going:
- Volunteer at a school, library, hospital, food bank, etc.
- Attend religious services/spiritual gatherings
- Join or start a book club.
- Plan a neighborhood potluck.
- Stay physically active and join a hiking/walking club.
- Take a class to learn something new.
- Join a “New Mom’s Group,” or go to the senior center for a lecture or interesting program.
- Teach others how to knit, sew, bake, garden, paint, etc.
- Get involved in a community project or cause.
- Host a movie night for your neighbors.
- Learn how to use social media to stay connected with friends and family.
- Before you give up your keys, learn about transportation options in your town.
- Consider living in a co-housing community.
I’d love to hear from you. Please send your story of how you stay connected.
“Life is short, make it sweet.”