“Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day” sounds like an overstated headline written for the vanity of clicks, shares and advertising revenue. It’s the type of headline that makes me roll my eyes at its lack of analysis into cause and effect.
So, when Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University, shared this statement during a panel at SXSW I was surprised and intrigued. This statement is in-fact, a fact: founded on empirical evidence and a meta-analysis of academic research of over 3.4 million people.
Julianne, Together with Dawn Fallik (medical reporter; associate professor at the University of Delaware and Author of Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends), shared the reality of our Global loneliness epidemic; their illuminating research findings; and practical advice for addressing loneliness and its associated mental and physical effects.
How big a problem is it and who is it impacting?
It’s not an overstatement to say that people are more connected yet lonelier than ever. In a study of over 20,000 Americans, Cigna found that 20% of people “rarely or never feel close to people” and almost 50% report “sometimes or always feeling alone.” The magnitude of this and the specific audience segment who are affected by it is shocking to me.
When compared to similar data from the 1980’s, feelings of loneliness have doubled (from 20% to 40%) and interestingly, are increasingly prevalent in the youngest group: those aged 18–22 years’ old. Although feeling lonely feels bad, we’d be forgiven for overlooking this data if the extent of loneliness was simply the feeling in and of itself. This, however, is not the case.
Lack of social connection (in terms of structure, function and quality) has a significant impact on both our physical and mental well-being in a dose-dependent fashion: from heart disease to diabetes, obesity and suicide. Julianne’s meta-analysis unequivocally shows that with every incremental improvement in our social connections, our health improves.
Why are we suffering from loneliness?
The obvious culprit, especially given the weighting towards younger populations, is technology. However, research on this subject is conflicting and it’s likely to be more nuanced than a simple correlation between social-media usage and loneliness. There are factors influencing social connection on a macro-perspective — beyond, yet related to, tech.
Our societies and community structures have changed in ways that have reduced learning and practicing of the soft skills of connection. The art of friendship and connection is a skill that can be learned and developed. Like anything else, we start by learning this from our parents.
Traditionally (perhaps ideologically) we would grow up seeing our parents chat to neighbours and shop keepers; get advice on the latest movie at Blockbuster and overhear (or listen-in on) phone conversations with their friends. Albeit slightly reductionist, our parents now are likely not to see the neighbours; order groceries online; stream movies with machine-driven recommendations (you see how I purposefully refuse to call Netflix’s recommendation engine Artificial Intelligence) and text their friends. We, in-turn adopt that lifestyle and have the same distance from the people who surround us — even though we might crave connections, we don’t have the access to create them and even when we do, our skills fall short.
In an unfortunate parallel to our lack of physical proximity is a factor that further deteriorates friendships even when they become a potential: our expectations. We have grown accustomed to having most of our daily desires fulfilled in a few taps: dates, taxis, tacos or interviews. We have placed those same expectations onto new friendships. In conducting her research, Julianne found that people expected to “click immediately” with a new friend and when that didn’t happen — blamed themselves. If, through luck or atypical determination a friendship was formed, our understanding of what makes a friend is tepid.
Through her research, Julianne spoke with a lady (let’s call her Jane) who lived alone but said she had a great friend who lived nearby. Jane then went on to disclose that she had a surgery scheduled the following week. When asked who was going to take her to the surgery, Jane confessed that she had hired a Task Rabbit for the job: she was afraid of asking too much of her friend. This is an increasingly common, and worrying issue. It is my opinion that friendship is formed not through the fun times but through those moments of vulnerability and need. It often surprises me that people feel nervous about asking for help and makes me wonder: would they not offer it if the other person was in need?
Aside from the obvious in this example, friendships can have a significant impact on our health and although a large part of that is related to our innate, unchanged needs as a species (which I won’t go into here) there are some surprising, simple recent findings from psychology and neuroscience on the topic.
How do friendships help our health?
Incredibly, in studying various biochemical processes in the body, researchers have found that talking to another person can physiologically reduce anger. If you’re angry and you talk to someone else your stress hormones drop and dopamine rises. Importantly, this response is less pronounced with a phone conversation and does not appear at all over text messages. We really do need face-to-face interactions to see the beneficial effects of connection but it’s clearly not as simple as “go and hang out with people”. So, what can you do?
Get started on improving your health with friendship
Given the gravity of the impact of social connection on one’s health it then seems surprising that we place such a greater emphasis on fitness, nutrition, smoking cessation and air quality. To this end, I think that the first step requires assessing the “state of the nation.” Just as we might step on the scales to check-in on our necessary goals in January, we should evaluate the state of our social-wellbeing and then make small steps towards responding to any gaps.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad shared the following questions as a personal review:
1. How many friends do you have?
2. How frequently do you interact with others, socially?
3. How often do you interact with family, friends or neighbours?
4. How supportive are these relationships — do they care about you, understand the way you feel, can you rely on them?
5. Do your family and/or friends make too many demands, criticise you? Let you down? Or Get on your nerves?
These questions can be used as a means to evaluate the connections we have and to start exploring where we can invest in building healthy boundaries; spend more time with specific people or explore ways and places to meet new people.