During the holidays, there’s a prevailing sense that everyone is living a Hallmark movie with the ideal family and with perfect celebrations. But this is far from the truth. The US is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness with some labeling it as the “age of loneliness.”
Sixty million people, one in five in the US, 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 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.
Loneliness can also be largely internal. You may be lonely because you are wedded to your job with little else going on in your life.. That feeling of emptiness may become sharper during the highly social holiday season. You may need an inner social life: more variety of interests and ways of being.
According to Cigna’s U.S. Loneliness Index reported in May 2018, Generation Z (ages 18-22) had the highest loneliness scores, followed by the millennials (ages 23-37). The Greatest Generation (adults ages 72 and older) were the least lonely. According to the report, more than half of Gen Zers feel left out or isolated from others and identify with most of the feelings associated with loneliness.
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.
However, a study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco challenges the Cigna results. It concludes that 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. 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.
So, 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.
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.
In 2015, the American Journal of Public Health reported that chronic loneliness is a contributor to health care use and the cycle of illness. What is truly startling: older adults are seeking medical services to meet their needs for “interaction and interpersonal stimulation.” In the United Kingdom, primary care physicians reported that one in five patient visits stemmed from patient loneliness.
“Over a given period, people who have strong ties to family, friends or coworkers have a 50 percent greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections,” says CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta. “If our relationships can have such an effect on our overall health, why don’t we prioritize spending time with the people around us as much as we do exercising and eating right?”
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.”
So, during this holiday season, rather than texting an emoticon or leaving a voicemail greeting 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, your voice, and your presence… now, that’s priceless.