Bad news first: Turns out we are all, each of us, in some way or another, totally alone. Not just in the existential sense that death is unfortunately a single-seat ticket to the terrifyingly unknown next level, but it’s now understood that standard-issue loneliness for living, breathing beings is “the sad reality of modern life.” That’s according to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who told The New York Times that in response to the finding that some 9 million Brits are often or always lonely, she has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the problem.
We don’t have it any better in the United States, where some 40 percent of Americans say they’re lonely, compared with about 20 percent in the 1980s. If that sounds bleak, consider that loneliness exacts a horrifying physical toll on its victims, death by a thousand unseen cuts. Feeling lonely can be worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It kills more people than obesity, and also thwarts your immune system (making it easier to get sick) and increases the risk for a host of health problems, from diabetes to cardiovascular disease to arthritis. You sleep worse and have more stress when you’re lonely; sometimes you stop grooming. And as you’d imagine, it’s all worse if you’re older, live alone or don’t have a college education.
“It seems the only thing worse than suffering a serious illness is suffering it alone,” Dr. Dhruv Kullar wrote for The Times last year about the health cost of isolation. It is terrible for you, and it will also nail you hardest during the holidays, where the disconnected feel as if they are eerily window-shopping the meaningful connections everyone else has.
As prosocial as we are, our current efforts at closing the loneliness gap are pretty sad, too. We’ve decided that somehow the internet is going to fix this, so we check our phones 80 times a day, browsing Facebook, arguing in the comments, and liking tweets. Ironically, this merely increases loneliness.
We do all this in a rich country with an allegedly great living standard, which naturally makes the loneliness even more pronounced. A recent review of 148 studies connecting isolation to health found that rich countries offer a perfect storm of exceptional loneliness: We live longer, we aren’t getting married as much, we have fewer kids, we split up more often and then we live alone. So in other words, we live a much longer life while slowly cutting every tie with everyone who could make that life any good. But hey, we can buy more stuff! (It’s almost as if humans are designed to self-sabotage, one retweet at a time.)
Loneliness is difficult to treat, assuming doctors even recognize it as a problem, which many don’t. It’s often diagnosed as depression or depression-lite, though it’s not the same thing as depression (they can be linked, of course). Because loneliness is trivialized and seen as a shortcoming of the lonely, it’s hard to address, much less take a pill for.
“As a culture we obsess over strategies to prevent obesity,” Jessica Olien wrote at Slate of her struggle with loneliness. “We provide resources to help people quit smoking. But I have never had a doctor ask me how much meaningful social interaction I am getting.”
Pretty darn bleak!
Now, the good news: We can still do something, or a lot of somethings, about crushing isolation. We just have to figure out ways to find meaningful social connection in our lives. One way to do this is to study what former lonely hearts did to turn it all around; The Guardian interviewed a few to find out how they rewrote their own story.
Steve, for instance, hit lonely rock bottom in his late 20s when, as his other friends started investing in their careers and families, he continued partying and doing drugs in the underground music scene in Leeds. A friend gave him enough money to finally get his own place and stop squatting with losers, but even still, agoraphobia, depression and loneliness set in. He sought treatment but could only manage surviving, not thriving, and lived in a kind of reclusive, miserable, but semi-functional state for years.
Like most of us, he tried reading a lot of cheesy internet self-help about how life is like a tree and everything, but it didn’t make a dent. He realized he needed not metaphors, but some kind of reasonable action. So he set a tiny goal for himself of just leaving the house and doing one small thing every day to make a connection with a person. The Guardian writes:
He made a life-changing decision: He would say yes to everything. “It was horrible to start with, especially the garden parties for their kids’ birthdays — I’d think, what am I gonna do? Look at the state of me — I’m a socially incapable freak. I was terrified. But I’d force myself to go. I was the weird guy sitting in the corner making eye contact with nobody. But I stuck with it because I knew that nothing would change without it. It was a slow and painful process, but each time it got a little bit easier,” he says. Within a couple of years, Steve felt human again.
Other examples from the piece found lonely folks who took the same approach. Amy Perrin said that after moving 200 miles from home with a partner and then breaking up and finding herself alone, she forced herself to start volunteering. She started a charity, which then gave her something to talk about with coworkers, which laid the brick for relationships with them that would give her a sense of belonging.
You don’t have to make deep connections with lots of people—just one or two.
Some of us are more prone to loneliness than others and may practice “social evasion” because we read more threat into interactions. Other people who tend toward loneliness focus too much on themselves and neglect interpersonal relationships, leading to chronic disconnection.
Both scenarios can create a vicious cycle where, predisposed to loneliness, you perpetuate the very behavior that makes connection more difficult. But even otherwise connected people can feel lonely too. Even if it’s not to the point of total social isolation, it can still impact health just as negatively.
But just going out and talking to people isn’t going to solve it. You have to make a concerted effort to build meaningful relationships. That won’t happen overnight, but you could start by putting down your phone, and trying to do that one small thing.