Is loneliness a health epidemic? The effects of loneliness have become so normalized, we might not even realize how dangerous it can be.
In his recent New York Times article, columnist Eric Klinenberg poses the question, “Is loneliness a health epidemic?” Klinenberg goes on to document the effects of loneliness and while he concludes loneliness is dangerous, it’s not an epidemic.
The effects of loneliness are as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and are even more dangerous than the effects of obesity. Epidemiologists may identify it as being a social health problem, but it is one within our own reach to change.
From the Wright perspective, loneliness is a life challenge we face at different times and points throughout our lives. It’s a universal challenge to all of us. In order to avoid the negative side effects of loneliness, we must first know ourselves. We must then use our self-knowledge to nurture and grow our connections with those around us, engaging in service-filled relationships.
Loneliness is what we refer to as a universal existential challenge. It’s a universal challenge for all human beings to affiliate and connect with others. In Klinenberg’s column, he attributes the rise of loneliness to neo-liberal social policies that are isolating us in our work and social lives. With the dissolution of trade unions and civic associations, workers are increasingly lonely and disconnected.
In earlier times, people were surrounded by their neighborhoods, their families and their sense of home. More recently, we’ve been evolving away from the tribal and toward the individual. The definitions of family and our social lives are looser and less defined.
Compounding the effects of the modern employment landscape is, of course, technology. We’re seeing many people—particularly adult men and adolescents— claim a huge network of friends and acquaintances but are missing out on the benefits of true engagement and social interaction. They may have friends, but their interactions are draining because of screen addiction. They aren’t nourished by their relationships and connections.
In Japan, the instances of loneliness leading to suicide has been a huge concern among working males. Again, long work days and a vast, but hollow “online social circle” has led to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
People may be surrounded by others. They can experience success in their career. They may experience fame and fortune, but it doesn’t counteract the isolation and loneliness they may feel. This is particularly true when they don’t feel truly engaged with others and connected to those around them. We saw this in the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams a few years ago, and even Marilyn Monroe in my generation. People may seem to have “it all” but if they don’t have the engagement and social support they need, they may still feel alone.
With the shift in our social structure, we face our own existential challenge. We must put forth a concerted effort to engage with others. We can’t rely on readymade affiliations of the past. It’s incumbent on us to built real-life relationships, to deal with conflict and resolve conflict in a way that brings us not only closer to others but closer to ourselves.
We must adhere not only to the adage, “to thine own self be true,” but also, “to thine own self be honest.”
Being true to yourself doesn’t mean doing what you want. It means exploring who you 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 your own.
Our desire to affirm, be affirmed, and to exist can collide with other peoples’ desires to affirm, be affirmed, and exist. We must create win-win modes of nourishment and opportunities for mutuality. 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 simply mean embracing the ideas we share with our students on a day-to-day basis. We need to identify our emotions. We need to realize there are no “bad” emotions or emotions that are wrong. We need to focus on emotional intelligence as a skill just as necessary as intellectual prowess.
One emotion researchers today miss most often is hurt. We must learn to deal with feelings of being hurt. If we can’t deal with these feelings, we isolate to avoid them. Thus, begins the cycle of loneliness and isolation.
If you think about isolation and the effects of loneliness, you can see solitude often comes from a desire to protect oneself. We’re always bumping into people, but if we don’t connect, or our interactions result in hurt, we may avoid them in the future. This leads us to also avoid the affirmation and nourishment that comes from social interaction.
Recently, I had a student address a statement I had made. Without realizing it, I’d made a statement that indicated and reflected my implicit bias. Once it as called to my attention I was able to realize, address it, and rectify the situation. The more implicit biases we have the narrower our world becomes. When our world is narrow, loneliness is the only outcome.
The counteraction to this is to call it out. When we disagree with something, say it. Drop the blame, shame, guilt, and justification. Instead, address your feelings openly and honestly. So many of our walls and barriers to communication come from unaddressed hurts and feelings we’re afraid to call out and discuss.
Instead, bring it up. Remember 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 start to 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. Get to know what motivates you, what you really want and expect from your relationships. Address the hurts you’re holding on to and carrying.
When we move forward we may find loneliness may be a widespread ill of today’s society, but it’s not new and certainly not something we’re fated to accept. Instead, we will start to strengthen our connections with others and jump back into the game.
For more on how you can connect with others, visit the Wright Foundation. We are excited to announce many of our courses are available online for download. These great learning opportunities are available at a special introductory price. Don’t miss out on a chance to learn more about yourself and the world around you!
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.