4 Ways to Beat Loneliness

Lonely No More

Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan

Staying connected with others could add years to your life.

In a world with more than 7 billion people, it’s hard to imagine that loneliness—a loss of connection from people and self—could be a problem. But new research indicates loneliness and social isolation may now be bigger health hazards than obesity or smoking, and the problem is likely to get worse.
 
About 42.6 million U.S. adults over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, according to a 2010 AARP study. Jeremy Nobel, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, points out that the problem isn’t about spending time alone, which can have mental health benefits. People can feel lonely in a crowd or even in a marriage. He defines loneliness as having a gap or a feeling that something is missing. It’s an “emotional connection that you desire that is not present to you,” Jeremy says. “And it turns out that discomfort is toxic at a neurophysiological level.”
 
How did we get here? Jeremy believes increases in divisiveness and technological convenience are partially to blame. “One way I often describe it is that you might have 600 friends on Facebook,” Jeremy says, “but who is bringing you dinner if you are sick?”
 
Keeping robust and meaningful social networks is crucial to maintaining health and happiness.”
 
Lonely people are less likely to be involved in social events, have fewer friends and deep relationships and could even face an earlier death than their social counterparts. Jeremy says there is growing research that shows loneliness contributes to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide, cancers and cardiovascular disease.
 

Happy Connections, Happy Health

 
Jude Marie Goudreau, a 50-year-old mother and grandmother from West Palm Beach, Florida, wasn’t going to let the fact that she was a single empty nester keep her from enjoying life. “I needed more people to interact with. I found myself home talking to the cat often and I realized that it was kind of a sad story,” she says. “I started a Meetup group hoping to meet people to do things with and to prevent other people from sitting at home talking to the cat.”
 
Her Meetup group, Middle Age Fun, launched in August of 2017 and quickly grew to more than 80 members. She was shocked that so many people—ranging in age from 40 to 80—signed up for the group and said people seemed eager to mix and mingle.
 
“So far, I have had the most success with coffee hours at Dunkin’ Donuts and brunches on Sunday mornings,” she says. “We have been doing card games and game nights, too.” Jude Marie says she believes an active mind is a healthy mind. She witnessed family members decline rapidly after retirement, an effect she attributes to inactivity. “If you are happy, then you are healthy and if you are healthy, you definitely live longer,” she says. “If you are home alone and don’t have any contact with other people, you feel rejected and sad.”
 
Eric Kim, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says social connections can help you bounce back from life’s curveballs. His research shows that social cohesion, even at the neighborhood level, is linked to better health outcomes and behaviors, especially with older adults. Those contacts can share very useful information, such as recommending a great physician.
 
“They help you in very practical ways,” he says. “If you just had surgery, they can bring in the mail or groceries and even provide emotional support.” Relationships can also have negative effects, he points out, but if we have positive connections, it can go a long way to improving quality of life.
 
The study "Interpersonal Mechanisms Linking Close Relationships to Health” finds that close relationships are crucial to health and well-being, as well as longevity. Social connections help buffer stress, lower cortisol and reduce risk of illness. Being socially connected can also help in areas of personal growth including finding love and intimacy.
 

Digital Doldrums

 
It’s not just older people who can fall victim to social isolation. A recent survey commissioned by online messaging business solutions provider LivePerson discovered that nearly 70 percent of young people would prefer to communicate digitally. Another study from the Center for Research on Health Care at the University of Pittsburgh says that people who spend at least two hours a day on social media are twice as likely to show signs of social isolation than those who only spend 30 minutes a day.
 
Possible emotional triggers of jealousy and exclusion can be spurred by continuously looking at the carefully staged lives of others. Jennifer L. Taitz, Psy.D., a board certified cognitive behavioral clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Single and Happy, says that spending more time online reduces actual face time with other people. “When we feel tired and it’s freezing outside, it’s certainly much less effortful to lie on the couch and swipe through social media to catch up on the latest news, both in the world and in your personal circles,” she says. “That said, keeping up with people in this passive way takes a toll on our sense of connection. To feel close, we need to put in time, energy and courage.”
 
Here are a few tips to connect with the world around you.
 
CARING FOR OTHERS:
 
Eric Kim, Ph.D., notes that volunteering is an excellent way for people
like recent retirees to meet new people and stay active. “Volunteering
can actually have many health benefits, because we are engaging in healthier
behaviors,” he says. “MRI studies show cognitive decline at a much lower pace.”
 
TOUCH OVER TECH:
 
Jennifer L. Taitz, Psy.D., recommends using technology as a tool to make plans to meet up
rather than replacing socialization. “If there’s an activity you’d find meaningful regardless of
whether or not you meet good people, like a book club or volunteer group,
that may be a great place to find someone with similar interests.”
 
SELF-CARE:
 
Jeremy Nobel, M.D., says sharing your story through creative expression
can help you connect with yourself and other people. You can use the creative arts
to find your mission, purpose and meaning. “What we are very confident about is
that creative expression allows people to fi nd, shape and share a personal
narrative…a story about who they are and what matters to them.”
 
RECONNECT:
 
“If you want more close friends but don’t know where to
find them, take a couple of minutes and consider people you may
have lost touch with who you can reach out to, or activities
you love where you can [meet] people who share
your passions,” Jennifer says.

 

Listen to our podcast with Jennifer L. Taitz, Psy.D. here:

 

From the February 2018 issue of Live Happy magazine.

 

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