Americans are lonely. Our loneliness is killing us.
It’s true. Loneliness is deadlier than obesity. Deadlier than smoking. And, yes, a great deal deadlier than the “assault weapons” some people are so obsessed with banning lately. A gun might kill more quickly, but loneliness will hasten death as surely as a bullet.
We live at a time of unprecedented “connectivity,” yet Americans have never felt more isolated. Tens of millions of us have dozens, hundreds, thousands of “friends” on social media, yet we have no close confidants, no one to really talk to.
One in five Americans, for example, say loneliness is “a major source of unhappiness in their lives.” At the same time, around 30 million Americans take antidepressants of one kind or another. Are we depressed because we’re lonely or we lonely because we’re depressed?
John T. Cacioppo was a pioneer in the young field of “social neuroscience.” He spent his career at the Ohio University and the University of Chicago studying the physical effects of social connection and isolation. Over the course of four decades, Cacioppo wrote more than 500 articles and about a dozen books, including the groundbreaking “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Human Connection” with William Patrick in 2008.
Cacioppo likened the feeling of loneliness to the pangs of hunger and explained the state of mind in terms of disease. Chronically lonely people tend to get sick more often and require longer periods to recover. They tend to have high blood pressure. They have higher rates of chronic inflammation and heightened risk of heart disease. Loneliness is associated with greater risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. And, not surprisingly, lonely people are at greater risk of suicide.
Bottom line: People suffering from loneliness are more likely to die prematurely.
The converse is also true. “Positive social relationships,” according to a 2003 report from the Dahlem Workshop on Attachment and Bonding, “are second only to genetics in predicting health and longevity in humans.” People who are socially connected tend to live longer, handle stress better, and have stronger immune systems. And that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Human beings are meant to be social creatures. Aristotle knew it 2,500 years ago. It’s an idea older than Aristotle.
How strange is it that we live at a time of unprecedented “connectivity,” yet Americans have never felt more isolated. Tens of millions of us have dozens, hundreds, thousands of “friends” on social media, yet we have no close confidants, no one to really talk to.
That’s a fact. Between 1985 and 2004, according to the General Social Survey, Americans reported the number of people they discussed “important matters” with dropped from three to two, on average. Even more shocking, about quarter of respondents told surveyors they had nobody to talk to about the important stuff. That’s roughly 73 million people without a close friend, somebody to talk to about life, about love, about family, about anything meaningful.
But we’re marvelously adept at shouting and screaming at people behind screens, aren’t we? Other researchers – notably Jean M. Twenge at San Diego State University – have found that the more time we spend gawking at social media like Twitter and Facebook, the less happy and lonelier we feel.
Maybe the way to overcome this loneliness epidemic starts by putting down the phone, looking around, and really engaging with other people. That would be a start, anyway.
One of Cacioppo’s great insights was that the pain of loneliness spurs us to be social, which really leads us to our true selves.
“If you think about what our species would be like without loneliness,” he said, “it would not be nearly as endearing a species. Loneliness, which compels us to bond with others, gives us what we call Humanity.’”
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @benboychuk.