Dr. Vivek Murthy, surgeon general of the United States, called loneliness a public health crisis and admitted that he had struggled with it himself.
Loneliness is different from solitude. Solitude restores whereas loneliness depletes. Loneliness is different from isolation. Isolation is the deliberate avoidance of people, places, and things that are uncomfortable. People choose solitude and isolation (the latter is usually a poor choice). Rarely do they choose to be lonely.
Everyone feels lonely. Loneliness does not discriminate by age, social status, religious beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation.
How does loneliness affect our health?
Loneliness has profound negative effects on our health. According to the surgeon general’s report, the physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection with others include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%, whereas connecting with others can help reduce the risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, and depression.
I’ve heard it said that the physical effects of loneliness are the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
What can you do to feel more connected to others?
The surgeon general’s report concluded with six recommendations for combatting loneliness, most of them requiring community and governmental action. His sixth recommendation called on individuals to cultivate a culture of connection: He described this as “The informal practices of everyday life (the norms and culture of how we engage one another).”
Pushing back against loneliness (and the cultural forces that generate it) requires us to slow down and turn off our devices.
Get back to doing things in person: I buy most everything online these days. It’s so fast, so easy and I can do it in the middle of the night without getting out of bed. But does fast and easy trump the benefits of connecting with sales clerks and other shoppers? The connections may be short, but they may also be funny, meaningful, and leave me feeling happy. Paradoxically, a rare online connection with Dino the tablecloth man made this all too clear.
I ordered a tablecloth online, choosing the size, shape, and color from a chart. Dino emailed back asking for the exact dimensions of my specific tabletop. I answered. He responded. “If I send you the size you ordered you will only have a 4-inch drop, I can make it 8-inch if you want.” I was gobsmacked. I don’t know Dino, I don’t know where he lives, what he looks like, if he’s married with children, or how old he is. I don’t know if he likes making tablecloths, if he has employees, or runs a one-man shop. What I do know is that his questions, his attention to detail and his taking the time to communicate stuck with me for days. I’ll remember him long after I put the tablecloth away until the next season.
Questions are your friends: The easiest way to build connections with people you don’t know is to ask questions. Questions show you are interested in the other person. They give you a clearer idea of who you’re talking to and what you may have in common. Questioning (not interrogating) closes social distance and increases empathy. So does self-disclosure (not the “it’s all about me” kind, but the kind of disclosure that furthers a conversation because it relates to what the other person is saying).
Get started: Start small with interactions that are vital to everyday life but not so vital if they don’t work out you’ll be devastated. Don’t wait until you feel ready to reach out; if you’re shy, you never will. Don’t wait until you’ve lost 10 pounds, had your hair cut, memorized some opening lines, or found a therapist who treats social anxiety. Start now.
Start with smiles and compliments, and try to make others feel better: Smile at strangers on the street. Say good morning or good evening. Particularly do this with old people. Smile at the homeless. One of the most painful parts of being homeless is feeling invisible. Smile at the street cleaner, maybe even thank her or him for their service. They’ll be glad you noticed. Smile at the cop on the corner. You’re safer because she’s there. Tell her you know that. Avoid the self-checkout at the grocery. Are you in that big a rush? Ask the checker how his day is going, comment on his haircut, ask him how long before his shift is over, or admire her fingernails. Let her know you noticed that she spent time and money to look nice.
Force yourself to speak to one stranger per day. Watch what happens. How do they react? How do you feel? You won’t hit a home run every time, neither will you always strike out.
Wishing all my readers, most of you are strangers, a new year filled with new connections and more time to spend developing them.