Four days before Thanksgiving 2013 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, construction workers arrived at an elderly woman’s apartment to replace her gas pipes. After repeatedly ringing her doorbell without a response, police were called and arrived at the scene. Finding a pile of the woman’s mail inside the door, police noticed that the oldest mail was postmarked from ten years ago! As police progressed into the apartment, they made an appalling discovery—the decayed corpse of the woman who had lived there. A chilling realization hit them: This woman had been dead for ten years.1
How could something this unthinkable happen? The woman had not been living on the streets. Rather, she had been living within a bustling community of people connected through multiple means of communication. Nonetheless, despite the available modes of technologically driven communication, this woman had not been able to meaningfully connect to another person.
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy offers an explanation. He comments, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness are increasing.”
Loneliness Has Health Implications
Loneliness. Though extreme, this tragic story reflects the reality that many are suffering from loneliness. Recently, the New York Times featured a study on loneliness and deemed our society as experiencing a “loneliness epidemic.” In the work place loneliness decreases performance, affects creativity, reasoning and decision-making. Moreover, loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduced lifespan similar to someone smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and are associated with having a greater risk of reduced lifespan than someone with obesity. Loneliness is also linked with a greater risk of heart disease, dementia, anxiety and depression.”
Further, the World Health Organization paints a grim picture of the ramifications of loneliness via its strong association with depression:
- 300 million people have depression
- 16. 2 million adults have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year
- 10.3 million adults in the U.S. experienced an episode that resulted in severe impairment in the past year
- Close to 50 percent of all that were diagnosed with depression also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder
- An estimated 15 percent of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their life
Depression has economic ramifications as well. Statistics show that the leading cause of disability worldwide is depression and that an estimated amount of more than $210 billion per year is spent treating depression. While nearly 50% of these costs are due to work absences and decreased work productivity, the remaining half of costs is due to medical expenses.
4 Things You Can Do
With the strong link between loneliness and depression, and with the inevitability in life of being alone sometimes, learning to deal with loneliness is an important skill that can improve one’s quality of life and prevent more serious mental health issues. Here are 4 things you can do.
1. Take the first step in increasing your support network. Become intentional in finding ways to connect to someone around you who may also be feeling lonely. A 2012 study found that religious involvement protected against loneliness later in life. While scientists weren’t sure why people who were religious tended to be less lonely later in life, they theorized because religious involvement typically means you’re more connected to a live network of people who care about you. When we feel that others can’t relate to our personality or our particular situation, we tend to overly focus our attention inwardly and feel even more isolated. However, when we realize that there are indeed others who feel equally isolated, it becomes easier to practice shifting our focus from self to others and asking ourselves, “Who is someone who could use my support?”
2. Take care of yourself through balance and priorities. Commit to balancing your time and taking care of yourself. Simple things such as getting good rest, eating healthy food and minimizing time on electronics (especially social media that studies have found can actually lead to isolation and depression) can make a significant difference on our emotional health. Recognize your joy sources, such as faith, family, exercise or hobbies, and prioritize them.
3. Remember that you are not alone. Seek the help of a counselor. Loneliness and depression can have roots from our childhood. The unresolved hurts from instability in the home, lack of boundaries or broken trust can leave tremendous impact on how we feel and respond as adults. Sharing these issue—and simply being heard and understood—by a counselor, mentor or pastor can be monumentally helpful.
4. Change your perspective. Being alone does not equal loneliness. In the times when we cannot avoid being alone (literally or emotionally), we can turn that circumstance into our advantage. Rather than viewing our circumstance as loneliness, we can view it as solitude. Solitude is different than loneliness because it isn’t necessarily negative—it’s the time for “me time,” a time to hone old skills or to discover and develop new skills. This happened to me on a personal level. Years ago, in a quest to cure what I thought was loneliness, I moved forward into an unhealthy relationship. It was one of the most trying times of my life. Thankfully, it ended and in the solitude of hurt and recovery, I was able to use that time to strengthen my personal relationship with God
So be intentional about creating meaningful friendships and investing the time necessary to be a good friend. Go out of your way to inquire and support those people in your network that seem less connected or are withdrawing for whatever reason. Or just go and volunteer at a soup kitchen or some other service to the underserved where it puts you in contact with other people. Put down your phone and actually meet people for the purposes of investing time and emotional energy with them. As we learn to care about others, we realize that helping others is a powerful antidote to our feelings that lead to isolation, depression and loneliness and we become capable of seeing our own lives in a different, more positive way.