FOR THE LOVE OF RELATIONSHIPS – The loneliness epidemic

Societal changes, particularly our collective mobility, high levels of social media use, reduction of social and emotional competencies and a dramatic number of individuals living alone contributes to isolation, loneliness, and alienation. Researchers are sounding the alarm on loneliness as it is affecting our health and wellbeing. It can even be a predictor of loss of longevity and premature death.

Loneliness is not simple being alone. Many of us crave solitude and find it to be helpful and even restorative. People who are married and have a large network of friends and family sometimes describe themselves as lonely. Loneliness is not predicated on the amount of people around us, but rather on the quality of those relationships. High quality relationships are characterized by emotional safety, being there when needed, friendship, humor, authenticity, compassion, being helpful and caring, and sharing common values. 

Severe isolation and loneliness do not create a yearning to engage with others. Conversely, it makes the lonely distrustful and hypervigilant to the possibility that others mean to harm them which then creates a cycle of mistrust and cynicism making it even more difficult to connect in a meaningful way.

What can be done with this mental health crisis of loneliness which is the precursor to depression and suicide? More urban planners are embracing the village movement, designing communities that endorse the “Live, Work, Play” concept. These new communities have clubs and activities, a town square, parks, libraries, grocery stores, retail shops and community centers where residents can cross paths and get to know one another. Organizations like the Center for Relationship Education are teaching relationship skills training to increase self-efficacy and social emotional competencies to children and adults alike. Strengthening marriages and families should be characterized by teaching couples and family members how to connect in meaningful ways rather than just pointing them to more and more social services. Neighborhood leaders are emerging to connect their neighbors with one another through social events, contests, concerts, creative arts, clubs, and activities.

Another strategy to reduce loneliness and depression is to talk about it. We need to encourage lonely individuals to let someone know how they are feeling, to be vulnerable and take a risk. This is the first step to healthy connection. When a single New Yorker, Julia Bainbridge, struggled with loneliness she started a podcast, The Lonely Hour. She discovered that just talking about her feelings made her feel less lonely. She was surprised to find out how many people felt the way she did. It was a comfort to know that she was not alone with her feelings of loneliness.

Working to increase physical touch through handshakes, hugging, patting someone on the back or holding hands is healing. Physical touch can reduce our stress, help fight infection and inflammation. Powerful hormones get released when meaningful, appropriate touch is experienced. Dopamine, epinephrine, and oxytocin gets released in our brains which help form social bonds and prosocial connectedness.  We are hardwired to connect. It is good for our health. Let’s fight loneliness together.