As humans, we are social beings who have evolved to co-exist and interact with one another. As a species throughout history, we have survived and prospered by banding together for mutual assistance and protection. Just as bees evolved to need a hive, humans evolved to need a tribe as well.
From the early history of mankind, we started as small family units and lived as communities. Then as our population grew, so too has the rise in urbanization. One would think that the increase in living in urban centers would result in a corresponding decrease in the number of lonely people, but strangely, the reverse is the case.
Additionally, as the human population has grown exponentially, so too has our dependence on technology. This technological advancement has given us computers, smartphones, and the internet, providing 24/7 access to information, communication, and entertainment like never before. However, technology is also resulting in people feeling more isolated than ever.
Loneliness is not an abstract state that impacts only particular kinds of people. The fact is that loneliness can affect everyone — young, old, and in-between — and at any point in life. In fact, loneliness is a chronic state that impacts as many as 33% of the world’s population.
It is rare to find someone who willingly desires to experience loneliness. That is because social isolation often carries the stigma of pity, and the person experiencing it can also feel increased alertness for threats and elevated feelings of vulnerability.
But what if the effects of loneliness create far more damage than that? If loneliness is left untended, it can have severe impacts on cognition, behavior, emotion, and health.
- What if I told you it harbors the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes daily?
- What if loneliness is as lethal as alcoholism and two times as harmful as obesity?
- What if social isolation can actually kill you?
In this article, I will tackle this chronic loneliness issue, providing insight into what it entails, its impact on our health, and nine helpful tips on how to deal with loneliness.
Let’s start with a story from a notable Taiwanese computer scientist to reinforce the importance of this message.
Illustrating the importance of human interaction
Notable Taiwanese computer scientist, businessman, and writer Kai-Fu Lee tells a story of a time when he underwent chemotherapy for his cancer in Taiwan. During this time, a close friend of his who was a serial entrepreneur approached him with a problem at his most recent startup.
His friend had already founded and sold numerous successful consumer technology companies, but as he grew older, he desired to do something more meaningful. Kai-Fu and his friend were approaching the age when their parents required more assistance in their everyday lives, so he created a product to make life easier for the elderly.
He devised a massive touchscreen installed on a stand that could be placed beside an elderly person’s bed. On the screen, there were a few simple and useful apps linked to services like ordering food delivery, viewing their favorite TV shows, phoning their doctor, and more.
His friend made the device as simple as possible, knowing how difficult it is for older folks to navigate the complexities of the internet or manipulate the small buttons on a smartphone. All of the apps needed only a few clicks, and he even included a button that allowed users to instantly call a customer-service professional to help them operate their device.
It sounded like a wonderful product, and he was very excited about all the product would accomplish.
However, his friend identified an issue after launching a trial version of his product. The function that received the most significant use out of all the ones accessible on the gadget was not food delivery, TV controls, or doctor’s consultation. It was the button for customer assistance.
A torrent of inbound calls from the elderly overwhelmed the company’s customer-service employees. This made his friend question if his users were still unable to traverse the one-click process onscreen, even though he had designed the device to be as simple to use as possible.
Interestingly, after speaking with customer service employees, he discovered that individuals were not calling in because they couldn’t figure out how to use the device. They were calling because they were lonely and wanted someone to talk to.
These folks craved genuine human interaction, another person to share stories with and relate to.
This story highlights how much loneliness is felt among us and how nothing else could replace human connection.
But as I highlighted in the introductory portion of this article/episode, this issue of loneliness doesn’t affect just the elderly. Loneliness can be felt across all age groups, and its effects can be very detrimental.
Being Alone vs. Being Lonely: What’s the Difference?
Before we further discuss loneliness, we must clearly distinguish between being alone and being lonely.
As humans, there are times when we need to be alone. These moments are precious and allow us to process our thoughts and the world around us. They enable us to self-reflect and grow.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Although I might disagree that “all” our problems stem from this, the truth is that many problems would be averted if people learned to sit alone and reflect so they can grow as individuals.
So, being alone never means something is wrong with us. It actually helps improve things.
On the other hand, loneliness is such that one yearns for a connection with other living beings and actually needs this connection but doesn’t get it due to factors they’ve unconsciously influenced or ones beyond them. A key difference between being alone and being lonely is that being alone is by choice while loneliness isn’t.
People across various age groups feel lonely for different reasons. These reasons could be any of the following: attending a new school and finding it difficult to make friends, being bullied or alienated, moving to a new city, a broken relationship, losing a loved one or close friend, going through a difficult and uncommon challenge, and so on.
While spending time alone can enrich one’s mind and body, loneliness can cause significant adverse health outcomes.
So, in a nutshell, it is possible to be alone and not feel lonely and, conversely, live an ostensibly rich social life and still feel lonely.
What are the causes and effects of social isolation?
Today, loneliness is recognized as an epidemic with very real damaging consequences. It can severely affect one’s mental health and lead to sadness, depression, and even early death.
Researchers are even finding that loneliness might be more widespread than we know or care to admit. Many people experiencing it avoid being open about loneliness because of its stigma. Many believe that feeling lonely means something is wrong with them, and they would rather keep that knowledge from others instead of seeming desperate for an essential human connection.
A considerable percentage of respondents aged 17 to 25 experienced loneliness, according to reports focusing on children and young adults. A 2021 study led by health insurer Cigna uncovered that approximately 58% of adults are considered lonely by clinical standards. According to a 2010 loneliness study by AARP, over 42 million adults over the age of 45 are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness.
But this is not just a problem in the United States. Various studies show that from 2000 to 2019, loneliness was experienced in 113 countries and territories and has become a widespread problem globally. According to another global survey, roughly 33 percent of adults worldwide experienced emotions of loneliness. The highest percentage was found in Brazil, with 50 percent of respondents expressing that they experienced loneliness either often, always, or sometimes.
It was also discovered that socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years after childhood, even after mitigating other contributing factors.
A recent study discovered that loneliness could increase the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Doctors have also found that lonely people tend to have increased blood pressure, weaker immune systems, and more inflammation throughout the body.
Research has shown that loneliness can increase the likelihood of mortality by as much as 30 percent. This could be from the health conditions directly worsened by loneliness, or actually taking one’s own life, as was the case of a man who killed himself after being ‘pushed over the edge’ by coronavirus loneliness.
According to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, being acutely lonely is as bad as your health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily. Furthermore, loneliness has been associated with sleep disorders and has been confirmed to accelerate cognitive decline.
How to deal with loneliness
In his TED Talk titled The lethality of loneliness, a frontline researcher in loneliness, Dr. John Cacioppo, asked a rhetorical question “If loneliness is dangerous, what can we do about it?” He went on to answer it with the following three recommendations:
First, recognize what loneliness is and don’t deny it.
As I discussed earlier, you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. So, recognizing and acknowledging your feeling of loneliness will help you realize the need to take the necessary steps to address it consciously.
Second, understand what loneliness does to your brain, body, and behavior.
Loneliness affects everyone in different ways. By understanding its unique effect on your mind, body, and behavior, you will understand how to employ the best approach to tackle it effectively.
And third, respond.
Responding simply means taking the necessary steps to lift you from the scourge of loneliness and its effects.
Nine ways to overcome loneliness
I thought the best way to approach the topic of coping with loneliness was by describing some strategies that have worked for me personally.
Love and accept yourself
We are only human and don’t have to feel bad or blame ourselves for feeling lonely and desiring connections with others. We all deserve love and quality relationships.
So, I found one of the most important things we can do is to accept and treat ourselves with love. Take yourself out to a movie, visit and enjoy the sights at a museum, treat yourself to a nice meal, and so on. By doing this, you will begin to attract the connections and relationships you want in your life.
Whether through sport, painting, drawing, singing, writing, dancing, book clubs, meet-ups, church study groups, and what have you, give expression to who you are, and by so doing, lift your spirit.
I find that sharing these types of interests enables me to develop a connection with others who express themselves in similar ways as I do.
Evaluate your current relationships
I have realized that it’s not the number of friends but the quality of your relationships that matter. Not everyone you might consider a friend is necessarily one, and most are not. I find the vast majority are acquaintances, drinking buddies, or friends of friends.
We often tend to ignore our most precious relationships and replace them with inconsequential ones. So, take a good stock of the people in your life and consciously work on building relationships with the right people in your life. People who enjoy your company for who you are and want to see you grow and flourish.
Take up a hobby
There are several new hobbies you can learn. They range from learning a new recipe to playing an instrument, painting, paddle boarding or kayaking, roller skating, woodworking, a new sport (like paddleball), and many more. Look out for ones that suit you and spend time engaging in them. Through this, you will connect with people with similar interests as you, which would go a long way in solving your loneliness issue.
Be more intentional with the use of your devices.
The reality is that most people are unaware that they are practicing distraction all day, every day, hence why they are masters at distraction. Computers and smartphones have made it possible to connect virtually with anyone, anywhere in the world, from the comforts of one’s room. They provide a medium to learn, entertain, and many more benefits. I don’t personally like to say we are abusing these devices. Instead, I believe we can choose how much to use them in our lives.
I have found that I do my best work and can be present in the moment when I keep my smartphone in a different room. I’ve learned to be conscious of how much time I spend using these devices for social media, emails, and texts.
Give your time and resources in service of others.
We are a society so focused on individualism at the expense of service to one another. I have often found in periods of loneliness that I place too much value on myself and not others. Therefore, one of the easiest ways to avoid loneliness is by focusing your time on others vs. yourself. We all have something we can give to others. So be intentional about how you are using your time.
Be kind and empathetic.
I have found that when I show kindness to others and make them feel loved and supported, I get the reciprocal in return. It is virtually impossible to exhibit this character trait and be lonely. Kindness is one of the most vital traits we can demonstrate, costing us nothing. But, it’s returns are limitless.
Open up to a trusted person and seek help.
There are times when loneliness could be caused by a factor that is beyond your capability to tackle alone. This could include trauma you haven’t healed from, causing you to feel unwanted, or a psychological issue such as the phobia of being with people.
In cases like this, you can visit a trusted professional and tell them precisely what is going on with you, so you can get the much-needed assistance you need.
Consider getting a pet.
In the absence of human contact, you can enjoy an animal friend’s company. A study conducted in 2021 found that owning a dog can have an effect on increasing life span, especially among people who live all by themselves. Also, a 2016 study found that elderly persons who were given crickets to care for as pets experienced decreased depression and enhanced cognitive functioning within 8 weeks of the experiment’s start.
I know for me. My dog Bentley is my constant companion who brings me joy and emotional support. So, I highly encourage you to consider getting a pet, volunteering at an animal shelter, or offering to look after pets of friends and family when they’re off on holiday to enjoy the same benefits.
The most terrible poverty is loneliness
Mother Theresa said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” In this quote, Mother Teresa zeroed in on the most critical aspect of loneliness, the feeling of being unloved.
Throughout this article and accompanying podcast, I’ve tried to provide actionable ways to address chronic loneliness, but ultimately, the key to overcoming social isolation is feeling and giving love. Unfortunately, we live in a self-centered world where instead of giving that love, we write a check or put in some half-hearted effort. In the end, a lonely person just desires to be welcomed with love and kindness.
It is important to realize that the majority of us will feel lonely at some point in our lives, and this loneliness can be difficult to cope with. But we don’t have to succumb to its harmful effects. We can take steps, and there are things we can do to improve and overcome such situations. I’ve provided nine examples that helped me. There are many others I didn’t cover that may be more suitable for you.
You may not be experiencing loneliness, but take upon yourself the responsibility of sharing your love with others. Consider intentionally asking someone how they are doing. Visit a neighbor who lives alone and bring some baked sweets. Check up on that old friend. Give your time and skills to serve someone else. Start or join a community, and help someone seek help when needed.
I mentioned the story of Kai-Fu Lee’s friend, who aimed to assist the elderly with technology but realized they needed human companionship more than anything else. Many concerned people in the tech space have realized that, too. There are now technological applications such as LinkAge, Papa, and Mon Ami, all targeted at helping solve the problem of neglect and loneliness among the aged and less abled people.
You may not be able to create technological platforms like these. Still, you can, through your time, your work, and any available means, play your role in helping others — particularly the elderly- who have limited coping options — deal more effectively with loneliness.
Life is finite. At some point, we’ll be gone, and all that will be left of us are memories in the minds of those we spent time with and whose lives we impacted in some way. Let us do our best to heal ourselves and, by extension, our world from the scourge of loneliness, and then we will be able to enjoy life in new dimensions — together.