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Rising Loneliness

Photo by Jean Gerber on Unsplash

Are you lonely? As it turns out, you’re not alone.  Loneliness has risen dramatically over recent years and it is estimated that as many as one in five Americans suffer from being lonely.  A meta-analysis of 148 studies done by Brigham Young University psychologists found that loneliness leads to significant health risks comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and doubles the risk of obesity (PLOS Medicine, 2010).  People who are not connected to others were three times as likely to die, had decreased memory and learning, increased depression and suicide, higher stress levels, higher blood pressure, poorer immune function, and a faster progression of Alzheimer’s disease according psychologist John Cacioppo, Ph.D.,  lead author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

Loneliness is not about being alone, but it is about feeling terribly isolated even when you’re around others.  Psychologist Steve Cole, Ph.D., from the University of California studied the role of specific genes and concluded that loneliness triggers vague worry, a constant threat on safety, and wears on one’s immune system (PNAS, 2011).  In addition to genetics, there are other possible causes of loneliness including aging, death, depression, divorce, social media, physical isolation, low self-esteem, and even commuting.  Lonely people tend to get less exercise and consume more alcohol.

Combating loneliness has less to do with the quantity of social connections, but has everything to do with the quality of connections.  One study by Cacioppo even found that loneliness may actually be contagious.  However, there is hope for those struggling with these feelings and ways to overcome loneliness.  Recognizing the problem is often the first step to change.  Next week I will discuss ways to deepen connections, cultivate new relationships, and create opportunities for friendships.  I believe that healthy relationships are the greatest source of joy and fulfillment.

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