DO YOU HAVE SOMEONE WHO LOVES AND CARES FOR YOU?
DO YOU HAVE A SOURCE OF JOY IN YOUR LIFE?
DO YOU HAVE A SENSE OF PEACE TODAY?
How would you answer these questions? One health system started asking their patients these questions 2 years ago, hoping to discover “needs beyond the physical realm.” Why such interest?
There is a strong body of research that shows that feeling lonely impacts physical and mental health and their treatment outcomes.
“Loneliness seems to be associated with everything bad. It’s linked to poor mental health, substance abuse, cognitive impairment, and worse physical health, including malnutrition, hypertension and disrupted sleep.” (LaFee, December 2018)
The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murphy said, “ A prevailing pall of loneliness in the United States poses a greater, more intractable public health crisis than tobacco use or obesity.” It has been shown that “those who are socially isolated have a 50% higher chance of death compared with those who aren’t, likening it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!” (Castellucci, January 13, 2020)
If loneliness can be decreased, there is a hope that the need for medical services will decrease and overall well-being will increase. Millions of dollars have already been spent by those in healthcare to dive deeper and figure out, What is loneliness? Who is lonely? Why are they lonely? And, how can we prevent/decrease loneliness?
WHAT IS LONLINESS?
Loneliness is more of a mental state of being than it is a physical one. One can be surrounded by people and feel lonely or all by themselves and not feel lonely. It is a difficult quality to quantify in research and is oftentimes measured by people’s perception of loneliness, perceived support and satisfaction in relationships. (Schulze, April 16,2018)
WHO IS LONELY?
We all know what it feels like to be lonely, and no one likes it but it seems to be a state of ebb and flow through our lifetime. Studies and surveys have shown that 17% – 75% of the United States’ general population have moderate to high levels of loneliness! It’s been found that loneliness is heightened in the late 20s, mid 50s and late 80s. Loneliness is a shared experience we all go through from time to time.
WHY ARE PEOPLE LONELY?
This is a complex question to answer. We might tend to feel lonely when we are in a new setting and not familiar with the people around us; when we move locations and have to start over and figure out how to become part of a new community; when a relationship ends; the death of a loved one; when we don’t feel a part of something we wish we were, etc. There are many triggers to loneliness.
I like the visual that I found on a blog posted by an Undergraduate at Harvard that noted that the amount of social connections and strength of those connections make a large impact on the level on loneliness found in individuals studied.
Figure 1: The basics of social network sizing. An average network has several close ties that are often in contact and many acquaintances that add substance to the network. A low scoring network has more weak or absent ties that lack qualities like mutual confiding or reciprocal interest. (Schulze, April 16,2018)
It speaks to the idea that regardless of what challenges and setbacks come our way, if we have solid social connections, we will find comfort, support, strength and inspiration to move forward and not get bogged down in loneliness.
HOW CAN WE PREVENT/DECREASE LONELINESS?
Loneliness is not something that can be prevented, but we can be proactive at keeping it at bay in our lives. What’s a good first step? As previously stated, create meaningful connections in our lives. Connections can be made everywhere! At home, work, school, church, neighborhood, sporting events, community centers, classes, etc. This requires us to step outside our comfort zone and actively spend time with people and share in common experiences.
In research done by Dilip Jeste, MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and Director of the UC San Diego Center for Health Aging, he “found a strong inverse association between wisdom and loneliness. People who were deemed wiser were less lonely.” (LaFee, December 2018) So, acquiring wisdom is a good second step shown to counteract loneliness.
Wisdom has been studied in Psychology and its definition continues to expand as time goes on. Several theories exist, but the most detailed definition currently acknowledged by the academic community was created by Meeks and Jeste (2009) as they reviewed the literature and identified commonalities. They came up with 6 components of wisdom:
- Prosocial attitudes/behaviors: promotion of common good, empathy, social cooperation, and altruism
- Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life: understanding others’ emotions and motivations and using the information to make “wise” social decisions
- Emotional homeostasis: self-control and impulse control; ability to manage oneself in challenging situations
- Reflection/self-understanding: Self-knowledge
- Value relativism/tolerance: perspective-taking behavior
- Acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty/ambiguity: navigating uncertainty and acknowledging/accepting the limits of what one knows. (Miller, April 7, 2019)
This insight provides such depth to wisdom. Wisdom is the acquiring of attributes that help us understand ourselves and others. It helps us to make the best choices we can, in various situations. If we are wise, then by this theory, we have honed the skills necessary for positive interaction with others and with ourselves. It links perfectly with the other counteracting factor to loneliness: connection. If our wisdom is well developed, we have the skills necessary to navigate our social world in a positive, impactful and ultimately, meaningful way that will naturally lend itself to social competency and internal peace and fulfillment.
Wisdom also lends itself to know when a connection/activity is worth investing in and when it is not. It helps us not to wear ourselves out on matters/connections of little consequence, but to be wise and focus attention and energy on people or activities that will yield positive results in our lives.
Let’s be wise and let’s connect! It will make all the difference in our physical and mental health and undoubtedly enrich our lives and the lives of those with which we are connected, helping us all to keep loneliness to a minimum. And, perhaps when we do have that overwhelming feeling of being alone, which we will, we can see it as an opportunity to evaluate where our focus and energy is and what we can do to increase our wisdom and deepen or create new connections.
Castellucci, M. (January 13, 2020). Looking for Answers to Loneliness. Modern Healthcare, 10-13.
LaFee, S. (December 2018). Serious Loneliness Spans the Adult Lifespan but there is a Silver Lining. UC San Diego Health.
Miller, K. D. (April 7, 2019). The 5 Character Strengths of Wisdom in Positive Psychology. PositivePsychology.com.
Schulze, H. (April 16,2018). Loneliness: An Epidemic. Science in the News-Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/loneliness-an-epidemic.