Punchy factoids are a staple of pop science, from “your blood vessels unraveled can stretch up to 60,000 miles” to “your brain has about 2.5 petabytes of information.” Yet recently, there has been a particularly insidious little factoid, one more relevant than ever during the wake of lockdowns and COVID-19. “Loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Being pop science, this factoid must be unraveled in order to find nuances cut short for clarity. After all, one might explain that loneliness isn’t the problem, as loneliness is the result of other mental health issues such as depression, which could explain the increased mortality. According to the National Institute of Health, loneliness is defined as the perception of social isolation, not an objective measurement of such. Because of this, one can be surrounded by friends or have a seemingly vibrant social life, yet still suffer from loneliness. Short-term loneliness, which generally does not have adverse health effects, is quite common, with 80% of those under 18 and 40% over 45 reporting feeling lonely occasionally. However, long-term loneliness, which does have adverse health effects, is experienced by 15-30% of the population. These adverse health effects include accelerated aging, cognitive decline, and increased mortality. Even worse, these effects still occur all while considering age, sex, chronic diseases, alcohol use, smoking, and individual health.
But how can that 15-30% of the population be saved from loneliness? Robin Caruso of CareMouth Health said that reaching out to lonely people could help them gradually engage with friends. The NIH offers a more technical perspective, believing that loneliness interventions which focus on cognitive therapy show promise, yet need more trials in order to gain reliable data.
Of course, loneliness interventions are still a long way ahead, and quick solutions need to be developed. One important axiom is sympathy for the victim. Telling someone to “just be yourself” or “open up more” is not only clichéd, it’s also useless. The victim already follows the former, and there could be a multitude of reasons as why they can’t “open up more,” be it mental health issues such as social anxiety, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorders, or side effects of loneliness, which, according to the NIH, involves hypervigilance against perceived threats and overwhelming focus on negative instances of social interaction, leading to less engagement with peers. However, it must be understood that loneliness does not usually have clear perpetrators. Although sympathy must be given to the victim, blind hatred for the peers is counterproductive, making it difficult for any social relationships to develop.
However, one must understand that a challenge of loneliness is the need for genuine relationships. Although going to more social gatherings can facilitate this, it must be known that establishing rules that require the inclusion of everyone is not helpful at all. By forcing lonely people to gather in hopes of helping them, this can make loneliness worse, as this might heighten their anxiety, whether or not from loneliness, or give lonely people the idea that the only time where they’ll be accepted is when other people are obliged to care for them.
Now more present with medical news or recent news of COVID-19, loneliness is a devastating state of being, and communities, as a collective, must begin taking measures to prevent others from succumbing to it, as even the smallest steps can lead to great positive change.