Effects of Loneliness on Health & How to Deal with it

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Science spoke, and the results are terrifying. 

The feeling of loneliness and social isolation are proven, silent killers. In their “Perceived social isolation, evolutionary fitness and health outcomes: a lifespan approach” article, Louise C. Hawkley and John P. Capitanio conclude that “perceived social isolation” comes with chilling physical effects. Those “include depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, unfavorable cardiovascular function, impaired immunity, altered hypothalamic pituitary–adrenocortical activity, a pro-inflammatory gene expression profile, and earlier mortality.”

To paint a clearer picture, Cigna’s “Addressing loneliness in the workplace: Good for individuals, good for business” article says: “feelings of isolation may actually impact our physical health—research shows that loneliness has the same effect on our mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s 2017 testimony before the U.S. Senate Aging Committee.”

The outlook is even grimmer if one couples that with the fact that “One-in-ten Americans say they feel lonely or isolated from those around them all or most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year. ” This could be an epidemic waiting to happen. Perhaps it IS an epidemic and we’re just ignoring it.

But… what’s loneliness anyway?

They might seem similar, but there are fundamental differences between loneliness and social isolation. And, if we want to get spiritual, between those two and aloneness. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Let’s go to the experts to find out which is which.

In their “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: implications for evidence-based patient care and scientific inquiry” study, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy B Smith claim that although “loneliness and social isolation entail equivalent levels of risk, they are not interchangeable. Social isolation denotes few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness involves the subjective perception of isolation—the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.” We’ve all felt alone while surrounded by people. We’ve all been perfectly happy while alone. It all depends on the situation.

And that leads us to the desired aloneness, a concept best described by Indian writer and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti in his “Commentaries on Living Series 1” book. He puts it beautifully, “aloneness is not aching, fearsome loneliness. It is the aloneness of being; it is uncorrupted, rich, complete. That tamarind tree has no existence other than being itself. So is this aloneness. One is alone, like the fire, like the flower, but one is not aware of its purity and of its immensity.”

Then, Krishnamurti defines the concept this article is concerned with better than we ever could, “Loneliness, with its fear and ache, is isolation, the inevitable action of the self. This process of isolation, whether expansive or narrow, is productive of confusion, conflict, and sorrow.” And, to close it off, “Being alone is not the outcome of denial, of self-enclosure” and “Aloneness is indivisible and loneliness is separation.”

But… who feels lonelier anyway?

Surprisingly, older people are not the main group affected by loneliness. To get to the bottom of this, The New York Times interviewed two of this article’s quoted experts. Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad told them: “We found stronger risks for those under 65 than for those over 65. Older adults should not be the sole focus of the effects of loneliness and social isolation. We need to address this for all ages.”

To support the idea, Louise C. Hawkley told them “If anything, the intensity of loneliness decreases from young adulthood through middle age and doesn’t become intense again until the oldest old age.” Plus, The New York Times also claims: “Only 30 percent of older adults feel lonely fairly often, according to data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.”

As for the causes, let’s go back to the Pew Research Center survey. They found that people are more likely to feel lonely because: “About three-in-ten (28%) of those dissatisfied with their family”; “26% of those dissatisfied with their social life”; “One-in-five Americans who say they are not satisfied with the quality of life in their local community”; and “Those who feel not too or not at all attached to their local community (16%)”.

Furthermore, “Personal finances also relate to feelings of loneliness. People who say they are somewhat or very dissatisfied with their personal financial situation are significantly more likely to express feeling frequent loneliness than those who are satisfied with their finances (17% vs. 5%).” Plus, “A similar pattern emerges when looking at annual income: 16% of those with an annual family income less than $30,000 say they feel lonely”. And, to close it off, “Those who are divorced or have never been married (17% each) are more than twice as likely to feel frequent loneliness than those who are married (6%).”

Possible solutions

It may be simplistic, even insulting, to tell lonely souls to just go out and meet new people. This is a complicated, multi-layered issue. But, sometimes, small affectionate gestures such as sending ecards to people feeling loneliness can lift their spirits in a meaningful way. There are no easy solutions, but a detail like that can make all the difference in the world.

In their “4Mind4Body: Social Connections And Recreation” article, Mental Health America has a few pointers for lonely souls, if they so choose to try and meet new people. The suggestions go from looking for amateur sports leagues in your community, volunteering, taking a class to broaden your horizons, checking meetup.com, all the way to joining a group aligned with your interests.

We also recommend a read Krishnamurti’s book and a reflection on the concepts it presents. “Aloneness is not aching, fearsome loneliness”. And the situation can become a beautiful opportunity to commune with the infinite.

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