Is loneliness a health epidemic? The effects of loneliness have become so normalized that we might not even realize how dangerous isolation can be.
In his recent New York Times article, columnist Eric Klinenberg posed the question, “is loneliness a health epidemic?” Klinenberg goes on to document the effects of loneliness, and while he concludes loneliness is, in fact, dangerous to our health, it’s not an epidemic…yet.
But the effects of loneliness shouldn’t be understated. In some studies, loneliness can be as detrimental to health as smoking and more dangerous than obesity. Doctors, researchers, and epidemiologists may conclude that it’s more of a “social health problem,” but it’s still detrimental to our wellbeing. So if you’re battling the effects of loneliness, here’s how to move toward stronger social connections.
Over the last several years, several sociological factors have moved us toward more solitary lifestyles. Technology is a significant influence on our time spent alone. The recent pandemic and a shift toward working from home have also caused to experience more isolation. For most of us, we can have groceries delivered, watch movies, work, date, and pursue our hobbies without seeing another human being in person.
From our perspective at the Wright Foundation, loneliness is a life challenge that we may face at different times and points throughout the years. We may be more isolated and alone during certain times in our lives, while other times, we may find ourselves more social. But building human connection is a universal challenge for all of us.
Loneliness is a universal existential challenge. It’s a universal challenge for all of us as human beings to affiliate and connect with each other. In the NY Times column, Klinenberg attributes the increase of loneliness to neo-liberal social policies isolating us in our work and social lives. With the dissolution of trade unions, affinity groups, and civic associations, people increasingly find themselves lonely and disconnected.
Years ago, people lived insular lives. They were surrounded by their neighborhoods, families, and sense of home. They may never have traveled beyond the borders of their city, but their social lives were intricately connected. More recently, people have evolved away from the tribal and more toward the individual. As a result, our family and social circles’ definitions are looser and less defined. In some ways, we’ve expanded our social lives and made them more global, but in some ways, the distance can actually create more isolation.
Compounding the effects of loneliness in the modern landscape is, of course, technology. Many people—particularly adult men and adolescents—claim a vast network of friends and acquaintances “online” but are missing the benefits of authentic in-person engagement and rich social interaction. Yes, they may have friends on Twitter or their online chats, but the interactions are superficial and even draining. Screens become a soft addiction that doesn’t nourish relationship connections and intimacy.
In Japan, the incidence of loneliness-induced suicide has become an enormous concern. For many years, it was a problem amongst working men due to long workdays and a vast but ultimately hollow online social circle. In the last few years, the pandemic has caused hopelessness and despair to grow amongst women. The Japanese government has appointed a task force and a minister of loneliness to help address the problem.
But anywhere in the world, people can feel despairingly lonely. People may even be surrounded by others and have successful careers, fame, and fortune, but it doesn’t counteract their loneliness. It’s particularly a problem when people don’t feel truly engaged and connected with those around them. We’ve seen these situations in the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, and even Marilyn Monroe. People may appear to “have it all,” but when they’re missing the engagement and social support they need, they may still feel very much alone.
No matter the social shifts and technology changes, we will continue to face an existential challenge. We must put forth a concerted effort to engage with other people. We can’t rely on readymade affiliations of the past. It’s incumbent on us to build real-life relationships and connections. To do so, we must deal with our internal and external conflicts in a way that brings us not only closer to others but closer to ourselves.
If we aren’t honest with ourselves, taking the time to understand our needs and the longings or yearnings of our hearts, we will never engage and connect with others. Being true to oneself doesn’t mean doing whatever we want. It means exploring who we are at a deeper level. It also means looking at others for who they truly are and coming forward to meet their yearnings and needs as well as our own.
Our desire to affirm, be affirmed and exist, may collide with other peoples’ desires to affirm, be affirmed, and exist, and that’s okay. Instead, we must create win-win modes of nourishment and opportunities for mutuality. It doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone we meet or avoiding conflict, but rather seeing people as our fellow humans, respecting them, and engaging with them.
Perhaps the counterbalance to a loneliness “epidemic” is a social and emotional intelligence epidemic, where people learn how to identify their needs and the needs of others, where we grow in ways that will cause humanity to flourish. Where everyone starts to “go Wright.”
When I say, “go Wright,” I don’t mean that everyone needs to be like me. I mean embracing the ideas we share with our students at the Wright Foundation on a day-to-day basis. In our work with students, we discuss the importance of identifying our emotions. We explore the realization that there are no “bad” emotions or emotions that are wrong, even if they don’t feel pleasant. We help students focus on emotional intelligence as a skill just as necessary as intellectual prowess.
One emotion that researchers often overlook is hurt. But the hurt is extremely poignant and often linked to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and rejection. We must learn to deal with feelings of being hurt by others and work through our fears of being hurt again. If we can’t deal with these feelings, we isolate to avoid them and thus continues the cycle of loneliness and isolation.
When we really look at isolation and the effects of loneliness, we see that solitude is often a protective measure. We’re always bumping into other people, but if we don’t connect, our interactions can result in hurt. We may avoid hurtful interactions in the future, which leads us to avoid gaining affirmation and nourishment that comes from our social interactions.
For example, recently, a student brought up a statement that I had made. Without realizing it, I’d made a statement that indicated and reflected my implicit bias. Once they called it to my attention, I realized it, addressed the issue, and rectified the situation. The more implicit biases we have, the narrower our world can feel, and when our world is narrow, loneliness is the only outcome.
The anecdote is to call it out. When we disagree with someone, say it. Drop the blame, shame, guilt, and justification. Instead, address your feelings openly and honestly. Many of our walls and barriers to communication stem from our unaddressed hurts and feelings that we’re afraid to bring up and discuss.
So bring them up. Remember that in the rules of engagement, everyone is 100% responsible for their emotions in any situation. At the same time, no one should accept more (or give more) than 50% of the blame. When we adjust our lens for viewing conflict, we will see it as a productive part of engagement. We start to fight for a mutually beneficial resolution to satisfy both parties.
Productive conflict is part of honest engagement. As we fight isolation and counter the effects of loneliness, honesty and authenticity are our best tools. We can explore what motivates us, what we really want, and what we expect from our relationships.
When we move forward, we may discover that although loneliness may be a widespread ill of today’s society, it’s not new and not something we’re fated to accept. We will start to strengthen our connections with others and enjoy richer, more satisfying social lives.
For more ways to connect with others, build relationships, and live your best life, explore our course on Wright Now. We offer an array of classes to help you get ahead in your career, boost your relationships, and discover yourself. Learn more today, so you can go forth and ignite your world!
Dr. Bob Wright is an internationally recognized visionary, educator, program developer, leadership and sales executive, best-selling author and speaker. He is a co-founder of Wright and the Wright Graduate University.
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.