The Loneliness Epidemic in the Midst of a Social Era

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The Loneliness Epidemic in the Midst of a Social Era

Photographed by Ilenia Tesoro

“To grow to adulthood for a social species including humans is not to become autonomous and solitary but it is to become the one in whom others can depend on” - John Cacioppo 

When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation face to face with another person? When was the last time you felt lonely? 

According to the UCLA Loneliness scale survey:

-Half of Americans view themselves as lonely (yes you read that correctly HALF)

-54% of Americans feel no one actually knows them well.

-56% of Americans feel the people they surround themselves around are not necessarily with them.

-40% of Americans feel lack of companionship, their relationships aren’t meaningful and feel isolated from others.

-There has been a rise of 30% in suicide and 75% rise in teenager suicide. 

-People born between the 1990’s and 2000’s feel the loneliest compared to any other generation. 

We live in the era of social media, we have all kinds of technology at our hands that provide us with the ability to connect with millions of people from around the world with apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and still we find ourselves to be disconnected from each other making us one of the loneliest generations of our time. Our culture is in need of heavy social connection and people are barely talking about it. No one is mentioning the dangers of loneliness. We are a social species and loneliness is a threat to our health and well-being. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscience expert explains that loneliness is the feeling of isolation and that pain from being lonely is part of our biological warning machinery that alerts that this is a threat to our social body which we need to survive and prosper. Loneliness also causes premature death and increases anxiety, stress and depression. In 2015, researchers at UCLA discovered that social isolation triggers cellular changes that result in chronic inflammation, predisposing the lonely to serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. One 2015 analysis, which pooled data from 70 studies following 3.4 million people over seven years, found that lonely individuals had a 26% higher risk of dying. This figure rose to 32% if they lived alone.

What is causing the lack of social interactions and increase in loneliness? Fear is. People are afraid to be vulnerable, to love and to be hurt. People are afraid of being misunderstood, of being ridiculed on social media and in life. People are afraid to have feelings, to show emotion. People are afraid to admit they feel alone. 

A second reason for the lack of intimacy and meaningful conversations is our culture. We live in an individualist driven culture in which over working yourself is praised. People don’t have the time to socialize or maintain intimate relationships because working and being “busy” is deemed more important. How many times have you had to stay at work late? How many times has a friend cancelled plans because he/she is “too busy with work”? Or how many times have you cancelled on someone because you’re too tired from being overworked? I’m sure you were able to nod your head to one of those questions. 

We associate being busy and overworking with professional success which is what America thrives on. According to the Harvard Business Review 50% of entrepreneurs claim to have felt loneliness and 30% feel that isolation is the cause of itWe are isolating ourselves in the name of “success” without being aware of the dangers of isolation. 

There are 5 blue zones in the world. These blue zones are the places in which people live the longest, healthiest and happiest lives and guess what is one of the main things all these blue zones have in common? They have strong community values. Dan Buettner the author of The Blue Zones said: “While working in the blue zones areas, I found that having a strong sense of purpose, a circle of healthy friends and living in walkable neighborhoods is something they all had in common”. I can attest to the difference of culture here in America and how it affects how we feel compared to other places in the world. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico until I was a teenager, I go back home every year and I can assure you the way of living there is so different culturally from New York. There is a sense of community, people look after each other. Saturdays are for going to the beach or doing something you enjoy and Sundays are for church and dinner with family. People take their time off away from work seriously. Once 5 o’clock hits everyone goes home, no one stays over time. Home cooked meals are obligatory 5 out of the 7 days of the week and walking or running outside either in the morning or afternoon is a ritual for almost everyone. People are happier, live longer and less lonely lives because there are strong ties in the community and the families. 

A third reason responsible for the lack of meaningful social interactions is our phones. No, I don’t think our phone is our enemy but without boundaries it takes over our entire lives including the amount of time we spend building human connections. While we are with other people face to face we bury our face in the conversations happening in our phones instead of the ones in front of us. We scroll through Instagram while eating dinner with our significant others. We check emails instead of engaging with our friends on a car ride. We are so busy “being social” on our phones that we aren’t doing so in a meaningful way in real life. It makes sense why 56% of Americans feel that the people that surround them aren’t really with them, because they are somewhere else, in the virtual world. 

We are a social species, that is how we were biologically built. We thrive when we work together, we need each other. When we isolate our selves we feel loneliness as a side effect which is our body’s way of telling us we need to make social connections. Too often are we ashamed to admit that we are lonely, when it is a normal human feeling. According to John Cacioppo: “Denying loneliness is no different than denying hunger, thirst or pain.” So, why do we continue to deny it? Perhaps we are ashamed to admit we aren’t as perfect as we portray ourselves to be, perhaps because there is a stigma around loneliness and we may feel bad about ourselves compared to everyone else’s perfect social life or perhaps it is because we associate loneliness with weakness.

I am here to tell you that admitting feelings of loneliness and wanting to do something about it is the exact opposite of weakness. I’m also here to tell you that those people that seem socially active and popular on social media aren’t as social as you may believe. It is all an illusion. Loneliness is an epidemic in our society. This only means that you’re not alone in your feelings, more people relate to you than you may think. 

What can we do to change this? We can start by being aware. Being aware of how we feel and aware that other people feel this way too. We can recognize the dangers of loneliness and recognize how it is affecting society. We can learn to break out of the stigma around vulnerability and its connection to weakness so we can open up to deeper conversations and ask for help when we need it. We can empathize with each other more often. We can fight for what we believe in and still empathize with each other even if we disagree because feelings and beliefs are valid. We can be more open to listening to others without judgement and with an open mind. We can accept the fact that we do need each other as much as we want to pretend we don’t. It isn’t the quantity of people around you but the quality of your relationships. We can create rituals with that one person you connect with. That can be anything from meeting once a month to talk about life to telling the person you go to bed with what you love about them each day. 

Loneliness is used as protection from many things but it actual is worse and more dangerous than anything you’re protecting yourself from. It goes against everything we are as humans. Reach out to others, check on each other, open up, get hurt, feel love, make a fool of yourself, have deeper conversations because I can assure you, you’re not as alone as you think you are. Let’s repair this social crisis we find ourselves in, together because that is the only way out.