Blame a ‘loneliness epidemic’ for risks to nation’s well-being

Blame a ‘loneliness epidemic’ for risks to nation’s well-being
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At a time when people are more connected than ever thanks to technology and social media, rates of social isolation are rising at alarming rates. According to John T. Cacciopo, the late University of Chicago psychologist and loneliness researcher, about 20 percent of people consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives” — and one third of Americans 45 and older say they are lonely.

In response to figures like these, the United Kingdom recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the problem of disconnection — and last year, former surgeon general, Vivek MurthyVivek Hallegere MurthyCan Scott Gottlieb reverse the opioid crisis? Blame a ‘loneliness epidemic’ for risks to nation’s well-being Surgeon general: ‘We are going to run out of funds’ for Zika MORE, declared that the United States is facing a “loneliness epidemic,” which will have dire health consequences.  

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Though the problem of loneliness is getting more attention, what often gets left out of the discussion is why feeling alone can be so crippling. The problem is not simply a social one — it’s an existential one, too. There is a direct connection between how alone people feel and how meaningful they judge their lives to be. In surveys, we list our close relationships as our most important sources of meaning. And research shows that people who are lonely and isolated feel like their lives are less meaningful.

 

The link between meaning and loneliness is rooted in our fundamental need to belong. People feel like they belong, according to psychologists, when two conditions have been satisfied. First, they are in relationships with others based on mutual care — that is, each person feels loved and valued by the other. Second, they have frequent pleasant interactions with other people. When other people think you matter and treat you like you matter, you believe you matter, too.

But when that need to belong is threatened — by rejection or isolation, for example — people experience distress. In one social science experiment, college students were brought into the lab, broken into small groups, and instructed to socialize with one another for 15 minutes. Then each student was led into a separate room where he was told to nominate two of those people to interact with again. Those nominations were not used. Rather, half of the students were told, by random assignment, that everyone wanted to see them again. The other half were told that not even a single person did.

Those who were made to feel rejected and left out — made to believe they did not belong — were significantly more likely to say that life was meaningless. Other research shows that rejected participants also rate their own lives as less meaningful.

Meaning comes from connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. When people say their lives are meaningful, according to psychological researcher Michael Steger, it’s because three conditions are satisfied: they believe their lives have significance and worth; they believe their lives are driven by a sense of purpose—that is, they have a role to play in society; and they believe their lives are coherent. When people feel isolated, those fundamental beliefs, which give people a sense of grounding in the world, weaken. And the consequences of that can be devastating.

The most obvious example may be the opioid epidemic. A recently published report of the Social Capital Project found a strong connection between drug abuse and social isolation. The drug abusers tend to be uneducated single or divorced men. The report cites some figures that starkly lay out the problem:

“In 2015, of the population age 25 and older, 61 percent of Americans were married, and together with widowed Americans made up 68 percent of the population, but accounted for only 28 percent of opioid overdose deaths. In contrast, never-married and divorced Americans made up about 32 percent of the population, but accounted for 71 percent of all opioid overdose deaths.”

Loneliness has also been linked to suicide, the rate of which recently reached a 30-year high. When Australian researchers Richard Eckersley and Keith Dear looked at societal factors predicting the incidence of youth suicide, they found that it was associated with several measures of individualism, like personal freedom and control. The 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim came to a similar finding in his own work probing into the causes of suicide. He found that people are more likely to kill themselves when they lack community. Without those social bonds, they enter into a state of what he called “anomie” — or meaninglessness — which drives them to despair.

That despair doesn’t always take quite such a dramatic form. In recent years, high school and college students have been reporting more depression and anxiety. When researchers looked at what was driving the rise in mental illness among emerging and young adults, they discovered that the young people they studied were significantly more likely to suffer from poor mental health than older generations did as students — and that this was associated with a decreased concern for meaning among the students and an increase in social detachment across society. 

The loneliness epidemic suggests something far bigger, that millions of people are suffering from a crisis of meaning. People need something to live for, some why to get them through the good and the bad of life — and for most people, that something is their relationships to family, friends, and community.

Emily Esfahani Smith, an editor at the Hoover Institution, is the author of "The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness".