An article in Harvard Business Review by former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy describes an epidemic of pervasive and destructive loneliness.
He writes: “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”
“Chances are, you or someone you know has been struggling with loneliness. And that can be a serious problem. Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity…Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.” Work and The Loneliness Epidemic, Harvard Business Review
(Scroll down for the results of a recent survey of 20,000 people by Cigna.)
Recently, it’s been suggested that mindfulness can help to alleviate loneliness. Perhaps it can.
Mindfulness is, in essence, experiencing and being aware of the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditations can help with worry and anxiety, as well as other emotional and physical challenges. There are some studies that show mindfulness-related training can even help with loneliness.
However, we believe the lasting remedy for loneliness is connection: to others, to self (and from our perspective, to the Creator.) Today’s culture teaches us that spending time alone is good. We can’t quibble with spending time alone–we all need time to get to know ourselves, to meditate, to develop some emotional independence and strength. However, this is perhaps the first era in human history where mainstream mores (and not just devotees of specific religious orders) insist that living alone is just as healthy as living with others.
Of course, the struggle of living with others, building relationships, and simply “getting along” is real. Relationships are hard. Relationships are HARD. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile and it doesn’t mean that they don’t offer us tremendous growth despite all the challenges they present.
Four or five years ago two celebrities divorced and called their divorce a “conscious uncoupling.” The idea was that “conscious uncoupling” was an alternative to a nasty divorce. There are absolutely valid reasons for divorce, for ending friendships, and so on. There are even valid reasons to go “no contact.”
But often in relationships the focus is on self. After all popular culture tells us that relationships are there to fulfill us. The problem is, that we don’t necessarily define fulfillment. So we end up thinking if this relationship makes me feel desired and admired, that’s fulfillment. Sometimes, though, deep fulfillment may be the actual process of personal growth, character building, and so on.
In order to help people in relationships see something other than self, a focus on the other person and their needs is recommended. Recently, a marriage counselor told a coaching client of C.R.’s that she and her husband needed to focus on the other person rather than themselves. But this wasn’t working. The client ended up feeling badly about herself, and in the end, said she felt like a martyr.
So what should the emphasis be, if not self or other? How about: Focus on the relationship itself? Valuing a relationship for the sake of relationship. Doing more things that strengthen the relationship rather than only for the sake of the other person (or self.)
When relationship becomes the focus something unexpected can happen. The relationship-building skills you learn can transfer over to other relationships. After awhile, many become second nature. And quality relationships, real friendships, real partnerships develop. The antidote to loneliness is relationship. We may want to reevaluate our emphasis on autonomous self and self-fulfillment and make the shift.
The survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older revealed some alarming findings:
- Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
- One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
- Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
- One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
- Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
- Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
- Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
- Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).