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Commentary: Gift Of Personal Contact

During the holidays, there’s a prevailing sense that everyone is living a Hallmark movie with the ideal family and perfect celebrations. But this is far from the truth.

The United States is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness; some label this the age of loneliness.

Sixty million people, one in five in the country, currently suffer from loneliness that is both chronic and severe enough to be a major source of unhappiness, according to John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago‘s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

We’re not talking about plain vanilla loneliness. Feeling some level of loneliness at times is considered normal, but chronic loneliness has exploded into a public health hazard. So, what is the difference?

Chronic loneliness is a state of aching isolation in which a person becomes aware of a painful feeling of disconnectedness from others. This can actually be the perception of loneliness where the quality of relationships is missing even though quantity is not an issue. As Bob Dylan‘s “Marchin’ in the City” lyrics go: Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone

Why, when we are more connected than ever through social media and so-called relationship enrichment technology, have we become so distanced from the intimacy and warmth of personal contact? Because neither is available through the emotionless efficiency of apps.

Contact relegated to clicks, texts and phone messages may assuage the self-imposed requirement to stay in touch. However, such contact is no substitute for our tactile and social needs. And, even though the young are masters of all apps, they have not been spared from the feelings of isolation. In fact, three million teens have experienced major depressive episodes this year, many stemming from perceived isolation.

But, no other age group feels the searing ache of loneliness more than those ages 60 and older. In the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of older Americans who felt lonely fell somewhere between eleven and 20 percent. That number is now 43 percent, according to a recent study from the University of California, San Francisco. Two-thirds of those were either married or living with a partner. This finding lends credence to the belief that what truly matters is not the number of relationships one has, but how meaningful those relationships are.

This loneliness has sounded the public health alarm. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness increase a person’s chance of premature death by 14 percent; that is nearly double the risk of early death due to obesity. It also contributes to increased health care utilization. It’s not just in America; primary care physicians in the United Kingdom report that one-in-five patient visits is due to loneliness.

Given our increased awareness that loneliness profoundly impacts us psychologically and physically, do we each have some moral obligation to ensure that others do not experience such social isolation?

More than a half-century ago, German psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann was one of the first to examine social isolation from an empirical perspective. She wrote that the “naked horror” of loneliness shadows our lives because the longing for intimacy is always with us. “There is no human being who is not threatened by its loss,” she wrote.

So, rather than texting an emoticon or leaving a voice mail when you know that person won’t be home, put away the smartphone and reach out and touch someone who would relish the gift of your time and touch. No bows, no ribbons, no fancy wrapping paper, no cost. Just you and your presence… now, that’s priceless.

Susan M. Mathews, of North Hutchinson Island, Fla., is a registered nurse and holds a master’s degree in bioethics from Union Graduate College.

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