By Jan Roberts
Never less alone than when alone” has defined me ever since I was a little girl. I really enjoy my own company and can go happily for days without speaking to a living soul. More to the point, I can go happily for days without being on social media. But over the last month, I’ve reflected on my apparent ‘aloneness’ and have come to the conclusion that what I enjoy, in fact often crave, is a far cry from loneliness. It is real engagement with real “live” people.
The reality of true loneliness and its massive impact on us, hit home for me this week when a friend who had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer was admitted to hospital for removal of a bowel obstruction. My friend has a circle of other women whom she identifies as “friends”, but she doesn’t have anyone – family or friend – who really and truly “has her back.” Sure, she receives visits, flowers, food parcels—but she has nobody who would immediately raise their hand and say, I am here for you, whatever it takes.” Reflecting on her loneliness, particularly as she now navigates her way through another round of significant health challenges, I was confronted with deep sadness. I realized her situation is far from an isolated one. In this age of instant and constant “connection”, loneliness is at epidemic levels, and getting worse.
Research confirms a plethora of physical health problems that go along with the rise in loneliness. These problems are diverse, and directly related to the emotional cost of not having a particular someone or group of somebodies who really “have your back.” The Health and Retirement Study, a biannual demographic study by the US National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, looked at data from almost 5,300 people aged 65 or over, surveyed between 2006 and 2010. The authors write,
Social isolation takes a heavy toll on those who suffer from it, both in health and overall well-being. An effort to quantify the cost of loneliness in the US also found that among Americans aged 65 or older, social isolation costs the US government nearly $7 billion in additional health care costs per year.’
The 14% of study respondents who described themselves as isolated, had far more health problems. They suffered more frequently from depression, had more trouble performing basic daily activities like bathing or grooming, and were more likely to have at least five chronic health problems. They were more likely than their socially active peers to be male, white, urban, and poor.
That’s the bad news. So, what to do about it? The bottom line is simple. Humans need other humans to survive!
Making real human contact and connection is the first step in combatting loneliness. You may not be blessed with wonderful family (past, present or future) and if that’s the case for you, you need to make extra effort to establish and maintain contact with other people. Those people might be neighbors, members of your church or a social club. They might be people who share a similar hobby. But one thing is for sure – they almost certainly won’t be those “friends” you only see on Facebook.
The real personal contact that can offset loneliness doesn’t come from social media. It means putting your smartphone away and putting yourself out in the real world. It means having a genuine conversation with a work colleague, asking about their family, smiling at a stranger in a coffee shop, starting up a conversation on the train, doing volunteer work.
John Cacioppo, a psychologist, developed an acronym called EASE to remember the steps for dealing with chronic loneliness:
The first E stands for “extend yourself,” but extend yourself safely. Do a little bit at a time.
The A is “have an action plan.” Recognize that it’s hard for you. Most people don’t need to like you, and most people won’t. So, deal with that, it’s not a judgment of you, there’s lots of things going on. Ask [other people] about themselves, get them talking about their interests.
The S is “seek collectives.” People like similar others, people who have similar interests, activities, values. That makes it easier to find a synergy.
And finally when you do those things, “Expect” the best. The reason for that is to try to counteract this hyper-vigilance for social threat.
One thing is for sure: whatever it takes to feel connected to your community, your new connections will pay massive personal and health dividends!
Jan Roberts B.Pharm (Hons) Dip Clinical Nutrition