When Dr Vivek H. Murthy became the Surgeon General of the United States in 2014, he went on a ‘listening tour’ around the country to discover first-hand what ailed the nation. He expected to hear about the rising use of e-cigarettes amongst young people or the opioid crisis. But soon a surprising thread emerged. Loneliness. Everywhere patients and medical professionals, regardless of their education, wealth, accomplishments, or status, reported feeling isolated and disconnected. They described it as a lack of belonging.
Fortunately, there was already scientific research on the impact of loneliness on health. Studies showed that people with strong social relationships reduced the risk of early death by 50 percent. Having a lack of social connections is equal to the risk of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.
Loneliness is linked to higher blood pressure, increased inflammation, a weakened immune system, and even changes in genetic programming. It can lead to an increased risk of serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer, infectious diseases, and viruses. Lonely people are more likely to develop mental health issues, suffer from poor sleep and are at greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
However, the late Dr John Cacioppo, also known as Dr Loneliness for his ground-breaking work in the field, said loneliness is our body’s call for a response. Like hunger and thirst indicate that our bodies need food or water, the feeling of loneliness signals that we need connection. His team at the University of Chicago say that humans have survived, not because of our physical attributes, but because of our social connections. It has always been dangerous to be on the outskirts of the tribe. Loneliness is the body’s way of saying “get back into the centre for safety.”
When we heed the loneliness signal, and we attend to our social connections, we feel like we belong. Our bodies relax. Our mood improves. We even feel that there is meaning and purpose to our lives. Friends and family help us to deal with adversity by providing support - just knowing that we are not alone in itself makes us more resilient. Attending to loneliness, therefore, becomes increasingly important as we age, and face major life transitions.
What’s really caught my attention is the science showing that loneliness is not just associated with adverse health developments, it causes them. Loneliness drives the process.
Loneliness causes our perception of the world to change. Lonely people perceive the world as more hostile; they become more risk-averse and less trusting. They do not get as much pleasure from connecting to other people. They, in fact, lose interest in connection, from which a downward spiral can then start.
Society views lonely people with suspicion. We think, “There must be something wrong with them.” In turn, lonely peoples’ brains confirm this view – they become more aggressive, morose, and defensive. It is easy to see how loneliness can affect your work, and eventually your financial health too.
To me, this research was more than interesting on an academic level. I had a visceral response to reading it. Because I recognised those symptoms and that spiral in myself. As an introvert, I like being on my own. Our move to Cape Town and the lockdown a few weeks after our arrival did not initially bother me. However, it seems it created the perfect conditions for chronic loneliness.
When we moved to Cape Town, we pulled up the roots of deep friendships, a wide circle of connections and colleagues. I gave up my early morning walks with friends which would leave a smile on my face for the day. There was no one at the office to greet me since I now work on my own. Like everyone else, we missed our friends during lockdown. We remained in contact through social media but it’s not the same (in fact, science confirms this). When restrictions lifted, there was a void, difficult to fill with the few friendships I had picked up. I felt lonely.
I understood that loneliness causes loneliness. I became miserable and lethargic. I felt less inclined to connect socially. I became touchy. I mulled over comments, others’ lack of interest in my wellbeing, or worse, their silence. When Barbara Hagerty became lonely writing her book, Life Reimagined, she said, “The voice in my head is a jerk,”. It is. It convinces you that even if you have connections, they’re not worth pursuing. Eventually, you make excuses, like busyness and family responsibility, not to connect. You forget what connection feels like and want less connection. And so it goes.
Admitting to loneliness is shameful. More so than admitting to addiction or depression. Dr Cacioppo says shame is one of the biggest hurdles to overcoming loneliness. However, loneliness is so prevalent that in pre-pandemic studies one in three people admitted to regularly feeling lonely. Some studies now put it at more than half.
Fortunately, we also know what doctors prescribe for loneliness. Conscious effort and time in reconnecting and silencing the voice in your head. Like any other worthy objective in life, building a healthy circle of connection needs more effort. I recently committed, again, to diarise friendships. To make it a priority. To stop making excuses.
There is one other remedy for loneliness. Altruism. Reaching out to others who may need you, may even be better than reaching out not to feel lonely.
If you, like me, and millions of others around the world, have struggled to integrate after the pandemic, it is time to do something about it. It’s vital for your health, wellbeing, purpose and meaning in life, and even your financial future. Don’t put it off. Make it a priority.
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