-Brian Hollett, MD and Ari Levy MD

Human physiology hasn’t changed much in the past thousand years.  The way we interact as human beings, on the other hand, has. For as long as humans have existed, we have lived as social beings in community, interacting, conversing, connecting, bonding, and often relating to others for no other purpose than for the sake of interaction itself. Over the past two decades, however, the nature of our interactions with others has changed dramatically as a result of technological advancements. The digital revolution, though designed to bring us closer together, instead seems to be impairing the quality of social connections with the unintended consequence of affecting our overall health.

We are lonely.

Our views about loneliness have changed in the modern era.  Being and feeling alone has not been viewed historically as inherently bad or harmful but simply as a basic fact of life. The term loneliness, which today has a negative connotation, was labeled frequently throughout the 19th century as “solitude” – a much more neutral term that has seen a steady decline in use. Loneliness, beyond the simplistic definition of “objective social isolation, introversion, or poor social interaction,” is in fact a much more complex psychological condition.  It is a state in which an individual perceives himself or herself to be socially isolated even if among other people.

While modern digital technologies enable us to have instant connectivity with friends and colleagues at nearly anytime and from virtually anywhere, these same technologies can distance us from quality communication with others. We have hundreds of “friends” on social media but seemingly no one who will talk to us meaningfully about our lives.

Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and best-selling author of The Idiot Brain argues that the way we live and work in the modern era has also changed, which exacerbates the loneliness epidemic.

“The modern nature of work means it’s common to have to chase employment, for companies to pick up sticks and relocate, and people will invariably go where the opportunities are, because they need to, to survive… there are fewer communities of yesteryear, where everyone knows what their role is and who their neighbors are.”

Many people who find themselves in new locations devoid of strong local relationships and social-support cling to digital connectedness in an attempt to establish the meaningful connections that can only be had through real, in-person interaction. This digital connectedness can then sabotage (or altogether prevent) attempts to build genuine community in a new environment.

So how lonely are we and what effect does it have on our health? A recent study conducted by health insurer Cigna, comprised of 20,000 American adults, found nearly half of participants struggle with loneliness. Twenty-seven percent stated that there is “no one that really understands them” and approximately 43% lacked any meaningful relationships. Loneliness is associated with countless health risks, including a risk of premature death (estimates vary from 26-45%), and chronic loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 29% and 32%, respectively. Loneliness also increases our risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia, and it may also accelerate the aging process itself at the level of our genes via telomeric shortening.

How do we combat loneliness in our modern era so that we feel more connected and engaged with our community—and less lonely? The solution may be a multifaceted approach – perhaps better than any new pill, it will not only treat loneliness, but also create a practice to prevent it in the future.

  • Make Connections. Join a group, volunteer or participate in an organized activity. Spend meaningful time together with nearby family or friends. Reach out to an old friend, get to know your neighbors. Even if it makes you uncomfortable, seek to connect with others. When using social media, think of it as a communication tool for arranging in-person connection rather than as a destination for interaction itself.
  • Be Expressive. Play an instrument, dance, draw, or paint. Go outside and experience nature. Consider what interests you and find likeminded people who will share your interests with you.
  • Unwind. Get a massage, do yoga, read a book, or listen to music. Draw on past ideas to rethink of “loneliness” as solitude, a time to be appreciated for valuable self-focused, independent activities. Practice mindfulness and meditation. (Check out the app HeadSpace for guided meditation sessions you can try in your home.)
  • Keep Moving. Be active. Lace up for a run outside, attend a gym class, or go for a swim. The pattern of habitual physical activity has the profound ability to combat the negative emotional aspects of loneliness.
  • Question the assumption. The lack of social contact does not mean you are lonely. During times of solitude, work on other aspects of your life. Reflect on your goals and aspirations and plan to achieve them.

As outlined in Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones, the world’s longest-lived people reside within strong social circles or “tribes” that not only give strong social and emotional support, but also support healthy behaviors. In an era when fewer and fewer people are naturally finding themselves in strong, meaningful and authentic “tribes” of positive and uplifting community, it is imperative that we seek out social connection to not only combat loneliness, but to maximize our health as well.  When we find ourselves away from others, we need to see it as a valuable opportunity for personal growth and self-development.

If this issue hits close to home, reach out to your SHIFT primary care physician to discuss strategies to address feelings of loneliness. We are here to guide and support you.

Dr. Brian Hollett is one of the board-certified physicians at SHIFT.  Learn more about Dr. Hollett’s background here.