“Wow Terry, to see loneliness listed as an option resonated with me. Hope you will consider writing an article on that one.” – “Eddie” – 5/8/23
Duly noted “Eddie.” Yes fear, the subject of my last piece, “Epidemic of Fear,” is joined at the hip with the following piece on loneliness.
But for context, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently released an exhaustive advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness in the United States. He wrote, “Put simply, this social disconnection increases the risk for premature death to the same levels as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”
Wow, let that sink in for a moment.
Now the truth is that although many may have, I never considered a possible link between loneliness and serious health issues let alone premature death. I find that discomforting and a reason for soul searching.
In addition, that advisory cites recent research showing that approximately half of U.S. adults experience loneliness daily, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I repeat: half of adults in the United States experience loneliness on a daily basis.
Wow, let that sink in for a moment.
Interestingly, in the middle of finishing this piece you’re reading in a local coffee shop, I broached the issue of loneliness with two customers and, omigod, they “bent my ear” talking about its impact on so many people they knew.
Now what all this did for me is to cause reflection on the fact that adults in our lives – half of them? – who show up for dinner, graduations, family reunions, you name it, are dealing with loneliness.
Of course, conventional wisdom is that older folks may experience loneliness when others in their age group pass away. However, there’s compelling data confirming that loneliness impacts all age groups, including youth.
A study on loneliness published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine defined loneliness as a stressful experience that happens when a person feels their social relationships are somehow lacking. The study explains that people can be alone without feeling lonely and vice versa and that people can be around others and still feel lonely – ‘‘lonely in plain sight!”
Another report suggests that immigrants may experience loneliness more often than other groups due to fewer social ties, language barriers, discrimination and being “otherized” by the dominant community.
There’s an old saying “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” It teaches that evil thoughts can enter the mind easily when we are idle. In other words, loneliness is the space where the mind and the imagination wanders, and not always to the right places.
Which brings us to the ‘lone wolf,’ who engages in violent acts of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, etc. Fueled by their biases, anger, feelings of being victimized because of perceived loss of privilege, changing demographics, etc., often gun totting lone wolves take out their frustrations and exorcise their demons in schools, malls, and places of worship.
Another real danger for people dealing with loneliness is that they are vulnerable to making bad choices – drugs, poor diets, scams, etc. – and otherwise attracting the attention of people who can cause them harm.
So why is it so hard to admit one is lonely? The short answer is because there’s a social stigma attached to loneliness. We often think it is somehow our own fault or that it reveals some personal shortcoming. Think about it, when someone asks how you’re doing, we often tell them “I’m fine” even if we suffer from loneliness.
So how do we deal with loneliness on a personal level or when we suspect loneliness on the part of others?
First, like we suggested in “The epidemic of fear,” the first step in dealing with loneliness is to name it and understand its potential short and long term emotional and physical consequences. Hopefully, this piece may help.
Another way to combat loneliness is by staying connected through volunteering, mentoring, joining book clubs, etc. Putting an activity on your calendar can give you something to look forward to.
Although the good in us wants to be helpful to those we suspect are lonely, be careful. Just because someone is alone does not necessarily mean that they’re experiencing loneliness. Their solitude may be a state of aloneness by choice that does not involve feeling lonely.
Nevertheless, for those you know for sure are experiencing loneliness, maintain frequent contact with them via phone calls, text messages, birthday cards, invitations to dinner, movies, concerts, sporting events, etc. Invite them to a religious service or engage them in another activity that can help them combat feelings of loneliness. A phone call from you could make all the difference in the world to a lonely person.
Now don’t underestimate the power of your personality when dealing with lonely people. Your energy level, positivity and optimism can lift a person out of the doldrums of loneliness. The last thing a lonely person needs is to be around those ‘gloom and doom,’ ‘woe is me’ energy drainers.
So remember that being alone is not always a bad thing. American writer Henry David Thoreau lived alone on Walden Pond during which he cranked out some of his best works, including his famous “Walden Pond.”
“A season of loneliness and isolation is when the caterpillar gets its wings. Remember that the next time you feel lonely.” – Mandy Hale
In the end, let’s not accept that our lives must remain compatible with a proliferation of loneliness. Commit to being a part of the solution, not part of the problem.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and 3rd place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.