By Gina McSheffrey-Emmons, PhD
Loneliness can be described as feeling alone or disconnected from others as opposed to actually being alone or socially isolated. It is more of a persistent and pervasive feeling rather than a temporary or fleeting one. Someone can feel lonely even when surrounded by many people. Loneliness has been linked to mental and physical health problems some of which include depression, increased risk of heart-related complications, and premature death. Loneliness is more common than we think and it can impact anyone. Some results of a recent survey conducted by Cigna (2018) showed that about half of Americans reported feeling lonely, and younger people reported more feelings of loneliness than older people. Across all age groups; however, those who engaged in frequent meaningful face-to-face interactions reported feeling less lonely compared to those who had minimal in-person contact with others (Cigna, 2018).
What we know from the research on loneliness is that social connections are important as it helps benefit our overall health. The quality of our relationships is much more important than the quantity. Having one close friend or a few close meaningful social relationships is enough to have a positive effect on one’s health as opposed to having many relationships that lack a deeper connection. However, regular in-person contact with individuals with whom you may not have a strong connection is still better than having infrequent face-to-face contacts or having none at all. There is also some debate about social media playing a role in loneliness. Some speculate that although we are easily and constantly “connected” to others via social media, it may leave people feeling void of real connections especially if they are not meeting up with their “friends” for in-person social engagements. The Cigna (2018) study surprisingly did not show any correlation between social media use and reported feelings of loneliness; therefore, this topic requires further exploration. With some effort, feelings of loneliness can be reduced and perhaps even prevented. Several suggestions to combat loneliness are as follows:
- Get Out: Spring is the perfect time to get outside and say hello to your neighbors and even to strangers you pass on the street or encounter at the store. The act of just saying hello or making small talk can be beneficial for both parties.
- Volunteer: Consider volunteer work, which will give you the chance to utilize your skills, feel good about giving back, and meet others.
- Join In: Participating in community programs such as at the local library or recreation center allows you to meet others who share your interests.
- Be Yourself: Be honest and open about yourself; your authenticity will allow you to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with others.
- Be Brave: Do not let your fears, self-doubts, and criticisms limit your opportunities for interaction with others. Take a chance and consider doing new things even if it may be outside your comfort zone.
- Keep Healthy: Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Making healthy choices and taking care of yourself will allow you to be a better companion for others in your life.
- Find Balance: Find the right balance between work and leisure. Working too much may not allow for much social time; therefore, you have to make it one of your priorities and add it to your schedule.
- Disconnect & Reconnect: Take a break from social media or use social media to schedule face-to-face gatherings. Reconnect with old friends and make time to visit family members.
Loneliness can have serious consequences on our health and well-being, but we can be proactive in helping to become more engaged and connected to those around us. Feeling socially connected to others is key to living a happy and healthy life. We should cherish and cultivate the close relationships we currently have, but also be open to forming new ones. So the next time you pass someone by, be sure to look up and say hello…it is good for your health and the other person’s too!
Cigna (2018). Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index: Survey of 20,000 Americans examining behaviors driving loneliness in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness- survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf