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What should we do about the loneliness epidemic?

Do you sometimes feel lonely? Well, you are not alone! According to a report from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there is a loneliness epidemic in the US and I would even go as far as to say globally. And it appears to have increased substantially since the outbreak of the global pandemic.

The report from Harvard suggests that 36% of all Americans – including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children – feel “serious loneliness” which is defined by the researchers as feeling lonely “frequently”, “almost all the time” or “all the time”. Moreover, 43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic. About half of lonely young adults added that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared”.

However – as the authors of the report state – this data should be considered preliminary because it is based on an online survey of approximately 950 Americans. Nevertheless, another survey by the Centre for disease control and prevention (CDC) in the US confirms these findings. According to the CDC, young adults suffer high rates of both loneliness and anxiety and depression. On top of that, 63% of this age group are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression.

These numbers are alarming and show that something is not right in our society. But before exploring some solutions to this problem, what does it mean to be lonely?

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Scientists define loneliness as the difference between the social connections someone would like to have and what they actually feel and experience. Loneliness, unlike being alone, is subjective. Being alone is an objective state and can be measured as the absence of social connections. It is also important to note that being alone can be a state of positive exploration of who someone is and how they relate to the world around them.

There are three different types of loneliness. The first one is psychological loneliness and is the most portrayed in media. “Is there someone you can confide in?” “Does someone have your back?” The second type of loneliness is societal loneliness and is felt when someone is systematically excluded from society because of their gender, race, disability, etc. The third one is existential or spiritual loneliness and is the lack of purpose or connection to something bigger than the human experience. These different types of loneliness were reported by the respondents in Harvard’s survey. For example, the majority of young adults said that they didn’t feel a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives.

The consequences of loneliness can lead to negative health outcomes comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Although feeling lonely is a very human experience, the problem lies in the inability to contain this feeling and let it spiral out of control. And certain structures in society make it even harder. For instance, social media platforms create a specific way to engage with people and the lack of engagement can immediately impact one’s sense of self, of self-esteem and confidence.

On top of that, some factors make certain people more prone to feeling lonely and letting it spiral out of control. Jeremy Nobel, the author of “Project UnLonely”, calls these territories of loneliness and identifies five of them in his book. The first one is trauma. According to the author, traumatized brains lead to traumatized minds and behaviours, all of which are about avoidance and, thus, increase the risk for disconnection. The second is illness because it changes people’s understanding of themselves and how they relate to other people. The third factor is aging. As people grow older, they lose friends, family members, and their own faculties which seriously challenge their ability to make and keep connections. The fourth is difference; whether it is gender, race, disability, or something else, these differences often marginalize people in ways that make them much more susceptible to loneliness. And the fifth territory is modernity because it increases political divisiveness, and social media is used primarily on the basis of comparison and performance.

The consequences of loneliness can lead to negative health outcomes comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For example, loneliness increases the risk of heart attack or stroke or death from either by 30%, dementia by 40% and diabetes by 50%. Loneliness is also strongly correlated to anxiety and depression. Moreover, research shows that the lonely brain itself starts reinterpreting ambiguous signals as negative ones and becomes much more impulsive. It has a reduced threshold to action, it over-interprets negative threats and becomes very emotion-based in its decision-making, rather than rational.

So what can we do about it?

According to Harvard’s report, the first step is to acknowledge that no one is alone and that loneliness is a common feeling and is no one’s fault. As explained above, loneliness comes from a combination of social and cultural phenomena, thus people should not feel ashamed or guilty because it could reduce the likelihood that they will take the risk of connection to others.

The next step would be to educate people on the topic and provide them with information and strategies – including public education campaigns – that can help them cope with loneliness, identify it and manage the self-defeating thoughts and behaviours that fuel loneliness.

Researchers also recommend to build social infrastructures at every level of government and in communities. Therefore, reimagining and reweaving our social relationships in health care, schools, and other institutions. Finally, we also need to work on restoring our commitments to each other, especially to those who are vulnerable, and to the common good. Basically, we need to put connection at the forefront of our society.

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