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May 7, 2024

The Loneliness Epidemic

How social disconnection becomes a physical disease and how to combat it TODAY!

On May 2, 2023, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory report putting the national spotlight on a hidden epidemic ravaging our modern world - the epidemic of loneliness. This epidemic contributes to all manner of adverse health outcomes on the individual level. It’s been linked to a greater risk of anxiety, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and premature death. On a societal level, depression and anxiety alone have a $1 trillion impact annually on the economy.

When the report was issued last year, most of us didn’t recognize loneliness as a physical health issue. Thankfully, many experts have shown light on the issue in the last year, but, still, the problem feels vague, vast, and insurmountable. Many people acknowledge that it’s sort of a problem, but what are we supposed to do about it?

There are a lot of reasons for hope on the individual level through two primary micro-actions we can take each day: 

1) a shift of our attention away from passive activities masquerading as social contact (more on that below!) and 
2) an increased participation in a practice of active social connection. 

Shifting our language and awareness around social connection to adopt the yogic notion of “practice” – something you can improve, fail at, quit, come back to, and get better at – would help each of us in becoming positive actors for our own health and for others’.

The Grim Statistics on Loneliness in the US

Scientists and researchers have been studying loneliness for many years, and their findings are nothing short of shocking.

Even before the pandemic, close to half of all adults in the US experience loneliness on a daily basis. Dr. Murthy goes so far as to say, “Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being.” 

These are statistics that bear repeating to the health nuts, biohackers, and fitness enthusiasts in the room. If you’re going to the gym alone before you’re spending time connecting with others, the numbers really call that choice into question: 

  • Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26 percent.
  • Lacking social connection can increase the risk of premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. This would imply you are healthier as a smoker with strong relationships than a nonsmoker living without a good network.
  • Having poor social connections is linked to a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.
  • Chronic loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia by approximately 50 percent in older adults.
  • Loneliness and low social support are also associated with an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Suicide rates have been rising in the U.S. since the 1990s.

Long story short, loneliness and isolation are among the worst possible health outcomes - on a physical and biological level - and it’s happening at alarming rates. If you want to read the full advisory report for yourself, you can find it at surgeongeneral.gov/connection. So how did we get here?

How Our Daily Habits Contribute to Disconnection

We are physically and biologically designed for connection and community. While our technological advances have outpaced our adaptation in this area, we’ve yet to find a hack or a convenient way to shortcut these hardwired needs.

For the vast majority of our existence, humans have lived and worked together, side by side, in small, close-knit communities. Without living in community, earlier generations of humans would almost certainly have died—teamwork was an essential survival strategy. 

But in recent years, as many have noted, we’ve become more isolated from one another. Many of us live in homes with just our immediate families, or even by ourselves. We watch TV and movies at home instead of going to community theater. We do our shopping online - alone - or maybe over Zoom with a stylist. In the U.S., we can get our food delivered to us without the need to ever see another living person - “contactless delivery” abounds!

To make all these magical internet things happen, we’ve let our screens become an extension of our arm. Americans spend an average of six hours per day on digital media. A third of US adults say they are online “almost constantly.” Eighty percent of people are on social media. 

While there are benefits to this technology, there are also drawbacks. The unholy combination of screens and social media give us a feeling we’re getting social connection, but it’s the relational equivalent of eating fast food and believing it’s providing necessary nutrients to your body. Our biology dictates that we must actively participate in social connection – or it’s as though we aren’t eating or drinking water.

Positive Steps to Combat Loneliness Can Add Up 

The Surgeon General’s report has a number of recommendations for addressing the loneliness epidemic, most of which are aimed at government agencies and other large organizations. But that leaves out important micro-steps we can all take every day. 

Here are some practical steps you personally can take that come from the advisory report itself. 

Invest time in your relationships. Bring the modality of your efforts to connect into your awareness. These exist on a scale, with active, in-person modalities ranking higher on the impact range. Start the habit of regularly reaching out to friends and relatives to see how they are doing. The mindset shift is away from passive consumption of social media and toward active participation in real life.

Minimize distractions during conversations. Turning your phone face-down on the table doesn’t count, unfortunately. Studies show it still conveys the impression your attention is divided, and the connection may end at a moments’ notice. Quality attention wins over quantity of attention.

Seek out opportunities to serve. Develop a habit of being more others-centric. This could look like volunteering to mow an elder’s lawn, bringing a meal to a friend in a particularly busy time, or participating in service events in your area. Get involved with religious or community organizations in your neighborhood.

Practice expressing gratitude. Practicing gratitude can help strengthen social bonds, and people are often more positively surprised to hear your expression of gratitude for them than you would think. This is an exercise-like practice I believe we need, along with the focus to increase our other-centered kindness muscle. Using your voice in expressing gratitude will increase the impact for your social battery and increase the receivers’ feelings of well-being and joy. Consider sending a gratitude message through HiLU today.

Reduce habits that lead to feelings of disconnection. We were excited about social media when it was about connecting with long-lost and far-flung friends. Now that it’s displacing real connections, we need to actively limit the amount of time we spend on social media, by focusing on spending time with people in real life. By adding active, positive, interactions to your life, you will quickly find you don’t have the time to give to advertisers. Establish healthy boundaries when it comes to dealing with unhealthy people in your life. 

Get help when you’re struggling. “Miracles . . . are performed by those who temporarily have more for those who temporarily have less.” Some day soon you will be the one with more to give. And if you are in a crisis or having suicidal thoughts, call 988 or visit 988lifeline.org right now to confidentially talk to someone who can help.

Loneliness is an epidemic in the US that crept up on us while we weren’t paying attention, but there are many small, incremental steps we can take each day that will add up over time. Doing so will make us all the agents of the change that we need, and it can be as simple as picking up the telephone and using your voice to call a friend like it’s 1995. If you’re so inclined, collect your own personal ways to reach out to others habitually, intentionally and with love and respect. The actions we take today will directly impact our health and longevity in the long-run.

Practice Active Connection Today