The Loneliness Epidemic: Fathoming Feelings and EmotionsJune 7, 20234 min read
Last month, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a general advisory to address a budding "public health crisis." The culprit behind the announcement is not a visible one, such as a virus or a disease, but is currently affecting nearly half of adults in the United States. The crisis is the feeling of loneliness and isolation, and Murthy says addressing these feelings is "critical" to addressing issues of mental health in America.
Assistant Professor Guy Weissinger, PhD, MPhil, RN, is a nurse, scientist and educator focusing on mental health and health systems at Villanova University’s Fitzpatrick College of Nursing. Dr. Weissinger believes, despite the difficult nature of navigating unseen nemeses, there are ways to quell this epidemic and save lives.
Q: Why is the feeling of loneliness now seen as a crisis?
Dr. Weissinger: It’s important to understand that loneliness is not just a person not having friends or not having good relationships. Loneliness is a feeling, the sense that one is distant from others while yearning to feel connected. These two sides make loneliness hard to understand sometimes because there are people who are happy with low amounts of social engagement and there are people who feel lonely even when they are surrounded by friends. Like hunger saying it’s time to eat, loneliness is a message that we are not fulfilling a social and psychological need – and it’s a big problem because so many parts of our mental and physical health are tied to having active social engagement.
Q: In an increasingly connected world, why are these feelings of isolation also increasing?
DW: Interacting with other people doesn’t actually make us less lonely, especially through things like social media. A sense of being emotionally close to others – reciprocity of attention and care – is what makes people less lonely. It’s clear that people are spending less time focused on social relationships than in the past. The “connection” that we have through social media is not the connection that addresses our deeper psychological needs. Upvotes and clicks feel good, but they do not make us feel understood and appreciated for our whole selves. In-depth conversations, shared projects and laughing about inside jokes – the kind of things that happen over extended interactions – are what actually make us feel less lonely. This isn’t to say that people don’t connect and get less lonely when they engage digitally. It’s about the quality and depth of interactions, not the modality.
Q: What are some ways loneliness and isolation can be addressed?
DW: If you are lonely, reach out to someone. Often, we wait for others to initiate because we don’t want to be a bother or fear rejection. If they say no, move on to another person. It’s hard not to take it personally, but if you are feeling lonely, the worst thing to do is to dwell on why it’s hard to schedule with ‘Friend A’ and instead focus on finding another person to connect with. And when you are with people, try to focus your attention on them. Put away your phone or other distractions and ask open-ended questions like, “What’s the best thing that happened this week?” or “How has [thing you know they enjoy] been recently?” Even if it’s not a person that you are super close to, both listening to them and opening up yourself helps you feel more connected. If you are worried that someone else is lonely, ask them to do something, especially if it’s something you know they like. Asking a person who loves movies to go see a movie with you will make them feel like you care more than asking them to a yarn festival, even if you’d prefer the yarn festival.
Dr. Weissinger says people who report that they have a regular social connection with others, especially in person, are more physically active, less likely to be depressed and are better able to better navigate difficult circumstances.
"While we often talk about resilience as being an individual trait, having good social support is one of the most powerful kinds of resilience," mentions Weissinger. "When times are hard, we can rely on our friends, family and larger social network to help with problem solving, resources, emotional support and even just simple distraction."
Weissinger says that a crisis as large as loneliness and isolation can't be solved through the recommendations of one person, but says connection and unity are key to fighting back against this epidemic.
"People with more and more varied connections don’t have simpler lives or less bad things happen to them, but they get through them easier because they can rely on others to help them manage in the ways they need."