The Loneliness Epidemic

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

The biggest disease known to mankind is loneliness.

loneliness, isolation, solitude, paintingThe definition of loneliness tells us what it is, but not what it feels like. The struggle and suffering are real, with painful consequences to mental and physical health. Broader and deeper than a clinical description, loneliness is complex and tied to social isolation, depression and illness.

Public awareness of loneliness is on the rise, but researchers have difficulty quantifying it statistically and behaviorally. While there is agreement that loneliness is real, there is no scientific consensus on whether it has reached epidemic proportions.

Defining Loneliness

Feeling lonely does not mean having deficient social skills, but it makes people less likely or able to use the skills they have. Lonely individuals perceive themselves as seeking friendship and a place of belonging, but nobody responds.

Being lonely means not feeling connected to others even when the person has relationships and activities. It can occur in a crowd or with a single individual. Loneliness depends entirely on the subjective quality of relationships, reflecting emotional or social disconnect from those around you.

Studying symptoms and long-term implications yields inconclusive research, questioning how an abstract emotion becomes a viral illness. At what point do we say a person is lonely? It is not limited to the lack of a romantic partner or friends, it is about loss and spiritual emptiness,

Loneliness Versus Isolation

man in chair, alone, isolation, lonelinessA person can be isolated but not lonely, and a lonely person is not necessarily isolated.  Both can be experienced at the same time, but they do not mean the same thing.

Loneliness is an emotional state no matter where your physical body may be. Isolation is the physical state of being cut off from human contact.

Because it is so complex, it does not fit one specific demographic. Children, adults and seniors can find themselves in a state of isolation, with compromises to their mental and physical well-being.

Two in five Americans sometimes feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel socially isolated.

Research Variables

While some studies expect the financial and public health impact of loneliness to increase as the nation’s population ages, other data indicates a decline.

Louise Hawkley, a senior scientist at the University of Chicago, said. “Our data found loneliness decreased from age 50 to about the mid-70s.” A study conducted in the Netherlands indicates people in their 50s and 60s are actually less lonely. Researchers found people between 55 and 75 are in social communities that keep them connected and involved.

Studies published by the American Psychological Association dismiss recent claims that loneliness among baby boomers is increasing. The media lead us to believe there’s an increase because statistics show more people are not married, or socially involved and live alone. Those factors do not always add up to loneliness and skew the data.

The Health Connection

A recent article in AARP Magazine uses the term loneliness epidemic but stops short of confirming it. Instead, the author cites scientific evidence supporting a greater awareness of the condition and broader treatment options, while acknowledging the associated health risks.

woman on beach, rain, umbrella, lonelinessAn estimated $6.7 billion in annual federal spending is attributable to social isolation among older adults, with a 29% increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% rise in the risk of stroke.

Loneliness can also be a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and arthritis and lonely people are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Given the ways in which loneliness impacts our bodies, chronic loneliness increases the risk of an early death by 14%.

Former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy believes loneliness and emotional well-being are serious public health concerns. Two in five Americans report sometimes or always feeling their social relationships lack meaning, and one in five feel lonely or socially isolated.

Researchers at the AARP Public Policy Institute and Stanford and Harvard Universities indicate the impact of people living in social isolation adds $7 billion to the annual cost of Medicare. Those affected experience longer hospital stays because they lack family and community support.

Isolation and Loneliness in the Workplace

circle of people, exclusion, left out, If you work, a large chunk of your time is spent in an office—even if it’s at home. Loneliness in the workplace has a significant effect on the quality of decision making, performance and creativity. It can trigger emotional withdrawal, creating negative communication and interaction with peers.

According to study by the Harvard Business Review, employees experiencing higher levels of loneliness also receive fewer promotions, less job satisfaction, and have frequent job changes.

Social interaction and acceptance in the workplace are often overlooked but when people feel shut out or find themselves unable to connect, it results in negative outcomes for the employee and the employer.

Solitude and Social Isolation

Loneliness is a different experience than solitude. Solitude is by choice, finding a quiet aloneness and being comfortable with it. Loneliness is a discomfort—you want to be more connected to others but are unable to find a way.

meditation, meditation on beach, alone, solitudeSocial isolation is having little to no contact with other people. It is different from solitude, which is simply the state of being alone. Social isolation can occur in solitude or in the presence of others and can also create a state of loneliness.

We need solitude to work, think or rest without being disturbed. Privacy provides time to reflect, work through professional and personal issues, be grateful for our blessings and connect with ourselves.

Raising Awareness

Everyone feels lonely, but it doesn’t last. Significant life changes create transitional loneliness, a temporary feeling caused by a major relocation, death of a partner, retirement, or even a graduation. New or unexpected situations create a temporary emotional void and transitional loneliness is a normal part of life.

When what is comfortable and familiar gets shaken it reminds us that we are social beings. Love, intimacy and community are contributing factors to our happiness and deterrents to prolonged loneliness.

There is no one idea or one path to move from loneliness to contentment. Good health is a balance of physical, emotional, and social well-being. Connectedness and community support are powerful emotional antidotes to loneliness and prolonged isolation.

Extreme loneliness represents a serious psychological condition and should never be ignored.