The Loneliness Epidemic
“The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.”Norman Cousins
The other week, I found myself doing something that I feel embarrassed about: or, at the very least, embarrassed about sharing publicly. I scrolled through my phone to see how many people I had texted or called that day, a sense of anxiety and unease overtaking me as I did the (easy) mental math in my head.
This wasn’t the first time I had done this, and I doubt it will be the last. In fact, I’ve done it almost every day for the past month, my heart sinking each time. Because in the past 2 years, my life has become – or at least felt – incredibly small, almost painfully so. The increasing sense of isolation, while seemingly mild during the beginning of the pandemic, has hit me in a profoundly staggering way. This has further been reinforced by remote work, a concept that I do appreciate and value for its flexibility, while remaining acutely aware of its drawbacks. As I’ve searched for language to try and describe what I’ve been feeling, it has since dawned on me. I’m lonely.
As a 30-year-old woman, I’m not alone. My roommates and close friends make similar comments, seemingly emboldened by my own honesty (read: sadness). One of my best friends is considering making an international move, telling me that she feels “just burnt out.” Among my other friends, I’ve noticed lowered energy levels and a quiet, melancholy mood. We don’t go out as much. We isolate more. We’re alone more. And while there is a marked difference between being alone and feeling lonely, we’re both.
Research from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, further confirms that this feeling of loneliness is not restricted to my friend group and that rising feelings of social isolation are most acute among older teens and young adults. The report specifically suggests that over 1 in 3 Americans face “serious loneliness” during the pandemic; around half of the young adults surveyed reported that no one had recently “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are faring. Other studies suggest that the United States is experiencing what has been termed “an epidemic of loneliness,” including a report from the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). Additional research indicates that it’s not just about the psychological and emotional effects including increased levels of depression and anxiety; a lack of human connection can be more harmful to health than smoking and high blood pressure. Loneliness isn’t just a feeling – it has steep costs.
Scientist Matthew Lieberman further explains how and why humans are wired to connect, using data across many different studies of mammals to suggest that we are indelibly, markedly, profoundly shaped by our social environment. When our social bonds or connections are threatened, we suffer. In a nutshell? Our well-being is dependent on our connections with others. While Aristotle once wrote that man is by nature a social animal, a lot of our ideations surrounding connection – particularly in the West – hinge on an idea of independence, autonomy, and self. But there’s science to back up the ways in which the neurobiological underpinnings of social connections are more important now than ever.
“These levels of loneliness are heartbreaking. We have big holes in our social fabric,” says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School. “We need to mobilize coherently and strategically to assure that far fewer Americans are stranded and disconnected.”
I try to think about how I can mitigate some of my own feelings of loneliness. I’ve recently made more of an effort to reach out to at least one person a day with whom I haven’t spoken for a while, and to plan safe outings with my roommates so that we leave our environment more frequently. I firmly believe that if we can better understand how we connect with one another and how important it is, we can better strengthen our entire social fabric. Because loneliness isn’t just about me; it’s about the entire social infrastructure in our larger communities. Loneliness reminds me that I don’t just have a commitment to myself; rather, I have a commitment to other people around me.
And so I try to develop strategies that not only help me cope with loneliness but also help my network. What are self-defeating thoughts and behaviors you have that fuel loneliness? Can you pick up the phone and call someone who may be experiencing loneliness? Will you make an effort to help restore our common good? I’m one person in an entire global ecosystem – and I need to remember that. In my fellowship Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re often told: “it’s not about you, it’s about the fellowship.” It’s not about me; it’s about us.