Graphic By Jeneta Nwosu
We Walk A Lonely Road
Loneliness is a Public Health Issue. What are We Going to Do About it?
November 30, 2019
It’s a feeling of being alone in the world, a feeling that no one understands, and a feeling of having no support: loneliness. And it’s more than the occasional Netflix and ice-cream binge on a Friday night. Loneliness can kill.
What Loneliness Does To Your Health
Meta-studies use a statistical approach to show a link between mortality and loneliness, like one study published online in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal in 2010, which revealed loneliness can be worse for your health than obesity and as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, discussed the health effects of loneliness with Ezra Klein on the Vox podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show.” He said being disconnected from others can put us under stress or fear. The body floods with hormones that are supposed to help us respond to danger by raising blood pressure and heart rate and preparing the immune system.
This becomes a problem when this stress state is “protracted,” or prolonged past a normal amount of time. This leads to inflammation and damage to the body, which increases the risk of illness. Other negative effects are poor quality of sleep due to micro-arousals, or brief awakenings from sleep one may not remember, and a weakened immune response, which means the body is worse at healing and protecting itself.
One could imagine a wide variety of scenarios when picturing loneliness. But throughout Murthy and Klein’s conversation, they paint a clear picture of what toxic, draining loneliness looks like.
Lonely people might seem grumpy, distant or socially awkward. They might blame themselves for an unreturned smile or a disappointing conversation. They feel like their loneliness reflects their worth, and they might reject others, so they won’t have to risk pain later. It might be hard for them to even admit they’re lonely, as it could feel like admitting a profound defect within them makes them undesirable. When you’re lonely, any circumstance can be directed inward.
Writer Rosie Leizrowice described her experience of loneliness in an essay titled “This Is What Loneliness Feels Like (And What It Does To Us)” published online in 2018. It mirrors what Murthy and Klein discussed. Like them, she spoke on how her sense of self became distorted, and she isolated herself from family and peers. She brought up another important point: when you’re lonely, it might feel awful to try to connect with others. Even when it’s harmful to you, you might want to retreat back into your shell. She compared it to feeding a starving person. They have to start eating slowly because if they binge, they get sick as their body isn’t used to food.
Freshman Will Romeiser said he defined loneliness as the state of feeling like there’s no one to turn to.
“I used to be kind of lonely,” Romeiser said. “At that time, I think it negatively affected my mental health, and I didn’t act as I would have. I wasn’t like myself.”
He no longers feels that way.
“I started band, and that gave me a sense of community,” he said, “It ended the loneliness, I guess.”
He didn’t pinpoint an exact cause for his loneliness.
“I think I just went through a point in my life where I just wasn’t making the connections I’d used to make,” he said. “Whether there was an absolute cause or not, I’m not sure. That resulted in what I would call loneliness.”
Murthy pointed out that physical solitude isn’t necessarily lonely. In fact, it can be restorative. Loneliness describes a feeling rather than a physical state of being. The loneliest man in the world could be surrounded by people, but on the flip side, one could be content with just one or two good friends. Of course, living in an isolated area has its risks. The focus here, however, was less on a life as a hermit, and more on solitude as state of being away from people that we all experience to varying degrees.
“Just because someone is lonely doesn’t mean they have no friends,” Romeiser said. “I still had friends that I could talk to and friends that could reach out to me.”
According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 percent of Americans often feel lonely. Murthy said in the interview that this number could even be an underestimate because of the phrasing of the questions.
Similarly, a 2018 study by Cigna and Ipsos used the UCLA Loneliness Scale and said almost half of Americans sometimes or always feel lonely. The study also found 27 percent of people feel as if there’s no one who understands them.
Social Media: Does It Harm Or Help?
The problem is getting worse too. The Cigna study shows Generation Z is the loneliest generation. The obvious factor to blame would be social media, but the study found the same rates of loneliness among heavy social media users and those who don’t use social media.
However, social media still plays a role in the loneliness conversation. Maybe we aren’t lonely because of our phones, but we do turn to our phones when we’re lonely. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t.
Murthy said on Klein’s podcast that social media can be helpful for those in marginalized or minority groups to find others they can relate to, and as a facilitator of real life interaction, it can be useful. But at the same time, one could feel worse after scrolling through pictures of parties on Instagram on a lonely night.
Klein mentioned during his interview that he views social media as “simulacra,” or imitation of social connection, and Murthy compared it to junk food. I agree. Although social media is acceptable in moderation, it can never be a replacement for people in real life.
Additionally, the constant buzz of looking at your phone during the day is neither as nourishing as connecting with friends or family nor as restorative as a reflective period of solitude. The focus we have on efficiency and aversion to idleness leads to us always looking at something on our phones. Over time, this is exhausting because when we’re always busy and taking in information, we don’t get any rest.
This is something I’ve experienced personally. I spend a lot of time online, probably too much. I’m fascinated with politics, public policy and current events, and it can occupy a lot of my time, especially with the breakneck pace of news these days. That and memes basically take up all my recreational internet usage. Every spare second I have, I look at my phone, checking the news, new posts, my texts, my grades, et cetera, ad infinitum. It’s hard to remember to take a break.
And with all this going on digitally, it’s easy for me to forget sometimes I need to interact with actual humans. I vividly remember one day, late last school year, when I hosted a gathering of my friends. After everyone was gone and I was cleaning up, I remember feeling lighter. It had been some time since I saw my friends and had fun with them in person. I remember thinking, “Oh, humans are social creatures. I forgot.”
Yet, I may have never been friends with those people who came to my house that spring if I hadn’t been added to a group chat in the seventh grade. The majority of communication with my friends is digital, and iMessage group chats have bolstered these relationships.
In fact, before I was added to that group chat, I was lonely. Digital communication was the beginning of ending my loneliness problem and a pathway to a real-life connection.
Observed Social Impact
Though I would never say women can’t be lonely, men, in particular, have a unique risk when it comes to loneliness. National Public Radio’s “Hidden Brain” covered this in an episode titled, “The Lonely American Man.”
The social pressure to be emotionally self-reliant starts for men in the teenage years. The episode described a pattern of young men growing less and less connected to others as they get older. Though quality social connections are vital to a healthy life, intimate relationships have a stigma for men. Showing emotion can be seen as feminine or gay, as opposed to the stoic manly standard.
At the same time, society and popular culture place a heavy amount of importance on the role of a girlfriend or wife. It’s normal for a man to only open up emotionally to his partner and drift away from his friends as a result.
This combination of factors leads to loneliness later on in life for men. Men in their middle age without a spouse may find it difficult to find an avenue for social connection.
Even married men can struggle with loneliness. Murthy told Klein a story about a woman who approached him at one of his events during his time as Surgeon General. He briefly mentioned loneliness during his presentation, and she thanked him for raising awareness for this issue. She said her husband struggled with loneliness for years but had never been able to talk to anyone about it. She moved to reveal her husband behind her, tears streaming.
Romeiser thinks his gender affects the way he makes social connections.
“There are different social standards that guys have to follow and that girls have to follow, for either,” he said. “Sometimes those social standards affect how you interact with others.”
I would also argue this rise in loneliness has contributed to the radicalization of young men. Extreme online communities I’ve observed, like white supremacist and misogynist “manosphere” spaces, have roots in a belief they are superior based on their race and gender. I think this belief arises out of loneliness. These men are isolated and feel unfulfilled in their social life. They want to find a reason for these feelings and blame this unfulfillment on what they view as fundamental flaws in society.
A good example of this is incels. Incel stands for “involuntarily celibate.” In other words, incels are people who’ve had trouble forming sexual or romantic relationships. In theory, an incel could be anyone. In fact, when the term was first coined, that was the intention.
An episode of internet podcast “Reply All” called “INVCEL” covered the genesis of the incel movement. The term was invented by a woman who created an internet support group for people who were struggling to find a partner. However, nowadays it’s associated with young heterosexual men who harbor toxic and misogynistic beliefs.
The base of the typical incel worldview is that all women are shallow. In the mind of an incel, women only care about looks and money and are incapable of feelings of any further depth. Incels believe they are unjustly disadvantaged in a post-feminism world, as all women are now empowered to pursue the most virile and attractive men and reject others.
Incels call these hyper-attractive men “Chads” and encourage each other to direct their rage at women. Calls for the assault of women on incel boards are common. Multiple mass shootings have been motivated by incel ideology, including the 2014 killings in Isla Vista by Elliot Rodger, who some incels call “Saint Elliot.”
In my time observing incel communities, I’ve noticed incel mythos, misogynist as it may be, is shaped by deep pain and poor self-esteem. Incels think that it’s impossible for women to ever want them because of traits they can’t control. Usually, these traits are looks, but sometimes they blame mental illness or neurodivergency.
Incels believe no one can understand them. They seek support online in toxic echo chambers that reinforce the worst of incel impulses and offer no healthy solutions. Incels will tell each other they’re ugly and doomed to be alone forever just as readily as they spew vitriol.
This is loneliness taken to its most extreme form. Incels start as lonely young men who want girlfriends with every fiber of their beings. After failure and rejection, they form an online loneliness superorganism. But instead of an ant colony, which functions as a unit for the good of the group, the incel community functions together to reinforce their harmful beliefs.
They are a macrocosm of a lonely person. I mentioned earlier that the lonely steep themselves in self-loathing and isolation, and the incel community amplifies and glorifies this.
A Global And National Conversation
Loneliness has tangible and specific costs on society too.
In Dallas County, one of the costs is $14 million paid by taxpayers for emergency room visits, as reported by WFAA. This price is incurred from 80 patients who visited four Dallas emergency rooms 5,139 times. The chief reason these repeat visits happen is lack of support, or in other words, lonely patients.
To track and manage these “frequent fliers,” Parkland formed teams with hospital staff and social workers. They’ve also partnered with community and faith organizations to provide friends for these lonely patients.
These costs extend far beyond Dallas County though, and in recent years, global efforts to combat loneliness have emerged. In 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness as a part of the UK government’s strategy to tackle this issue.
The plan focuses on government partnerships and programs they can adapt to target loneliness and also campaigns to promote a healthy culture. It includes expanding the health care system’s capability for social prescribing services, which connect lonely people to community programs for support.
On Oct. 15, a year after the initial publication of this strategy, the UK government announced a £2 million grant fund for organizations tackling loneliness.
A movement in Denmark called Folkebevægelsen mod Ensomhed, which translates to Movement Against Solitude, also seeks to remedy loneliness through communal meals they call Danmark Spiser Sammen, or Denmark Eats Together. More than 80 organizations take part in this project, and any Dane can set up an event through their website.
While there has been a global response to the issue, there doesn’t seem to be a US equivalent to the UK initiative. Some materials regarding the issue have been posted online by government health departments, but they’re mostly about seniors. Murthy worked to raise awareness about loneliness during and after his tenure as Surgeon General, but he didn’t set up an institutional effort to tackle the problem.
However, presidential candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg brought forth a notable proposal for solving the loneliness epidemic. In his closing statement in the October CNN and New York Times Democratic presidential debate, he said America was experiencing a crisis of belonging.
Buttigieg blamed this loneliness crisis for Amerian’s self-medication, deaths from despair, and the divisive state of politics today. He referenced his plan for promoting national service as a possible solution, which is listed on his website as a bullet point in a section devoted to his mental health and addiction plan. Another bullet point in this section says he plans to create a campaign to combat loneliness nationwide.
It’s interesting he chose to address this issue during his closing statement. To me, it shows he wants this issue to be a central plank of his campaign, and he thinks promising to guide the country out of a crisis of belonging will resonate with voters. Considering how many Americans struggle with loneliness, it could pay off.
American culture stresses independence and individualism. While this drives Americans to pursue success, it also has the drawback of associating emotional dependence on others with weakness. As a society, we need to understand we are not alone in our loneliness, and true strength comes not from self-reliance and isolation, but having the bravery to reach out to others.
“If people recognize [loneliness] and are able to help the people who could be going through this, it could be fixed very quickly,” Romeiser said.
His advice to lonely people was to force themselves to get out there and connect with friends old and new. “Even though you’re not going to feel like it, get back into the social setting where you’re able to reconstruct those connections,” he said.
Murthy recommended lonely people use service as the first step to break out of their isolation. On “The Ezra Klein Show,” he said the generosity involved in doing an act of service creates a connection, and serving someone else shifts the focus from yourself, which is helpful considering the self-directed negativity occurring in the lonely. It also gives lonely people a reason to value themselves.
But first and foremost, comes awareness and – at least the beginnings of – acceptance. Awareness means an understanding you are lonely, and that it is a problem. Acceptance means an agreement with yourself to refrain from self-sabotage and self-degradation. Therapy could be a good way to work through these problems. It’s not possible to fully disentangle yourself from loneliness without the prerequisite of feeling like you’re worth others’ time and care.
Whatever the world or your brain might tell you, the truth is we’re all worth it.