Despite living in an era of unprecedented potential for human connection (e.g., the internet, social media and mobile phones), estimates are that 40 percent of adults over the age of 65 will experience loneliness. Indeed, the 2010 U.S. Census found that 27 percent of households in America are single-person households, outnumbering all other groups. Of course, not all those who live alone are lonely and not all people who are lonely live alone.
Whether you are lonely is not determined by the quantity of your relationships but by their subjective quality -- by the extent to which you perceive yourself to be socially or emotionally isolated. You might live with a spouse or spend your days surrounded by colleagues and yet feel extremely disconnected, empty and unwanted.
Loneliness is often the result of life events such as divorce, death of a partner, starting college, enlisting in the military, moving to a new state or country, or losing close friends to illness and death. But loneliness can also develop gradually. You might lose one close friend to a move, another to the demands of parenthood and another to the demands of their job. Before you know it your social life grinds to a halt and you spend most of your weekends alone. Or a painful breakup might cause you to withdraw and avoid exposing yourself to further rejection, making you more isolated with each passing week.
Having meaningful relationships is essential for happiness and self-fulfillment. Most people would not be surprised to learn that in addition to the intense anguish it creates, loneliness has a big impact on one's mental health as well, as it increases your risk of clinical depression and suicide. More surprising is that fact that chronic loneliness poses an even greater danger to your physical health.
Chronic loneliness is associated with significantly greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, it contributes to a more rapid progression of Alzheimer's disease, and it suppresses the functioning of your immune system. In one study, otherwise healthy college freshman who confessed to being lonely had a much poorer response to a flu shot than non-lonely college freshmen. Loneliness has also been shown to disrupt the regulation of cellular process such that it predisposes you to premature aging, and can take years off your life-span. Indeed, scientists concluded that chronic loneliness poses as large a risk factor for your long-term physical health and longevity as cigarette smoking!
But while cigarette packs come with clear warnings from the Surgeon General, few people are aware of how dangerous it is to "inhale" two packs a day of emotional isolation. Because loneliness is viewed merely as an unfortunate circumstance and not as the silent killer it is, it rarely triggers a sense of urgency in the person who suffers from it, nor does it activate one in their friends or family members.
What makes loneliness so difficult to overcome is that being isolated often fosters habits and mindsets that makes lonely people behave defensively and unwittingly push people away. Their anguish also creates a veil of negativity and pessimism through which they struggle to recognize the opportunities for social connection that do exist around them.
I recently did a radio interview in which I discussed how to "treat" the psychological wounds loneliness inflicts. The host responded by reading a message a listener left on the show's Facebook page. The listener claimed he had no opportunities to meet new people, virtually or otherwise. Yet he left the message on the show's Facebook page! He simply didn't see that he was already a part of a community, that each of the many people who left similar messages on the show's Facebook page represented a potential new connection, someone to whom he could reach out and initiate a dialogue.
If you are suffering from loneliness, there are always steps you can take to emerge from your emotional or social isolation. Hopefully, becoming aware of how dangerous chronic loneliness is to your mental and physical health will give you the motivation to overcome the natural pessimism you feel and the courage to take an emotional risk and re-engage with the world.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.