Sociology

Loneliness a Major Health Risk

"Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism." — Robert Waldinger
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When it comes to living a long and healthy life, we often turn to diet and exercise to increase our longevity. Neglecting the quality of our social relations, we look for magic-pill solutions to postpone our physical decline.

Although physical health has received a great deal of attention recently, spawning a massive industry around diet and exercise, it turns out we might be better off focusing on our social health. Recent research looked at the impact of loneliness as a risk factor for mortality and found:

Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.

The researchers also found loneliness is comparable to other health indicators, including substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care.

Although studies are now mounting regarding the risk of social isolation, it is a relatively neglected issue. The researchers note:

The current status of research on the risks of loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research on obesity 3 decades ago.

Luckily, sociology is often incorporated into medical school training, giving clinicians an understanding of how our bodies, minds, and social environments are interrelated. There has been progress in this regard, but in practice, physicians often emphasize the biological component at the expense of the psychological and the social.

If we want to understand human thriving, the social component is essential. According to an 80 year long Harvard study that followed a group of individuals since their college years, the quality of our close social relations is the best predictor of health and happiness:

…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

In a TED Talk on the study, Robert Waldinger emphasizes the dangers of social isolation, stating:

Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.

This is all the more concerning, given the increasing rates of social isolation in affluent societies, particularly among the aging population. Modern conveniences allow us to live more independently than ever, but we need to consider the costs to our mental and physical health. We need to consider the health of our communities.

I use the term ‘social health’ because our societies are living organisms. Like a physical organism, social life can develop pathological characteristics, resulting in damage to the individual parts that make up the organism. Although loneliness is experienced as a personal problem, it is connected to larger public issues.

If you’ve been following my work up to this point, you will notice this is the central issue I’ve been discussing, particularly in relation to veterans issues, and more recently, addiction and social media.

To reflect this central focus, you may notice I’ve made some blog name and design updates. Feel free to check out the new homepage, as well.

As always, I greatly appreciate your thoughts and feedback in the comments section. Thanks for reading!


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36 comments

  1. That’s the very reason wht social media outlets have taken off. I’ve been writing a chapter on the pros and cons relative to social media. While it provides a connection to others, it also causes so much negativity. My family rarely ever call and prefer texting and that’s not often.

    I know if God wants me to create free social brick and mortar outlets to connect people to stimulate the mind, body and spirit; he’ll provide the funding. It’s a big problem and something needs to be done.

    Gteat post!

    Blessings, Emma

  2. Nice article. I never realized the severity of loneliness. People need each other to survive. I wonder what are the lonliness differences of veterans compared to civilians. When you approach the severity of loneliness with veterans, you have t factor in their dismembered brotherhood, especially if they Got out or are retired

  3. It’s interesting when people think about social isolation and loneliness in the context of living alone. But at the end of the passage I noticed social media popped up. And the use of social media as it pertains to people’s loneliness has increased as well over time. People have 10k friends, 100k friends, 1 million friends, and yet they live life alone. How does one know so many people and still be alone. It’s because you don’t know one million people, one million people follow you. Then in return you follow a bunch of people. So our lack of interaction exist because we are becoming a society of people who follow and not engaging personally. You can tell by how people vent over social media and put their emotions and personal business on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. These people themselves are very lonely.

  4. Thank you for this, a great read!

    I have gone from being surrounded by family, to being perpetually alone aside my husband and children.

    My moving abroad and circumstantial changes have lead me to become somewhat socially reclusive (language/cultural barrier of new lands) and I can 100% agree with the impact on mental health and its correlation with that of the physical.

    Being lonely caused/causes me to seek out alternative and often unhealthy means of comfort that I might have once gotten from interactions with family or friends – often I find that this is food, though it can also be alcohol. Neither I find particularly comforting in the aftermath, but in the moment; I would say they help.

    The most troubling aspect I find of loneliness (for me, at least) is that it is a difficult cycle to remove yourself from; even when solutions seem fairly obvious.

    I find that along with my mental-health related weight-gain, loneliness has cost me substantially eroded self-esteem and a real reluctance to ‘cure’ the loneliness by a means of socialising.

    It is refreshing to read an objective approach and perspective on loneliness and its risk factors; I feel less like I am losing my mind!

    Again, thank you for sharing and I hope my personal insight proved a useful addition to an already informative piece.

    S x

  5. Good post. I believe mental and physical health are closely tied. Good physical health leads to more confidence and self-esteem which will aid you’re loneliness. Could you pay my blog a visit and provide some feedback? I talk about similar material. Great stuff!

  6. Thank you for this article. Have you yet investigated some possible solutions to this problem? Craigslist is full of lonely people looking for each other.

  7. This is awesome, I wrote one a year ago on loneliness as I think it’s an incredibly misunderstood and neglected topic to discuss. Many see loneliness as being “needy”, but there are so many different facets you can experience, and just like most mental health problem relating to emotional coping, it’s on a spectrum. Everyone gets lonely, but it’s building that self-awareness and coping when loneliness becomes this ongoing void and internalised negativity which is so damaging to our sense of self and identity.
    Fab, post. If you ever have time swing by my site and see what you think, always happy to collaborate on projects or share the research and stories of others.
    Best Wishes, J

  8. It’s really sad that this isn’t more well known. Physical health is so so beneficial, but if your heart and mind aren’t being fed, you will never be healthy. It’s crazy the affect stress can have on the body– can cause all sorts of problems, even cancer! We need to take more of a priority in taking care of our mind.

  9. This was a great read! It is so true that many millennials (& younger) would rather hang out behind a screen than have face to face social interactions. I’m a millennial, myself, and notice it among my peers. Now time to go grab dinner with some friends..

  10. I think mental health has a lot to do with healthy living..and the loneliness often draws you into this depression which could then end up being unable to maintain a healthy mindset 😦 great post!

  11. This is a fantastic post. I find that this is becoming a big issue with university students, especially international students. They are often suffering silently yet are able to come to class and maintain a happy face. Sometimes being surrounded by people can enhance the reality of your loneliness. Despite being quite a sociable person, at university I found that it is so easy to slip through the cracks in the crowds. It is important for universities to recognise the lonely environments that students can exist in and be able to create hubs for them to seek truly engaging social experiences.

  12. Super pertinent in our day and age. I find that we, as a species, are becoming more and more isolationist. The irony is that this is despite modern technology supposedly connecting people from all over the world at the touch of a button, because, instead of actually going out there, socialising and actually speaking to each other, the tendency is to stare at screen and send text messages.
    Great article and thank you.
    Lieze
    https://liezeboshoffcontentcopy.wordpress.com/blog-2/

  13. As a stay at home mom I have suffered with loneliness periodically. It seems to hurt my mental health! Luckily I have made more close friends.

  14. Social isolation began when internet was improved.
    Now every time I go on a sociel website I find people who say they are bored and lonely.
    People stay at home all the time. They don’t go out.
    Once wewalked in the square of our town and we spent all the time there.
    We talked, we loved, we knew each other.
    But now time is all spending at home and people think they will find love on the web but it’s not true.
    All people who sarch for friends and love on the web after a little time they get depressed.

  15. I feel like loneliness only lies within yourself and no one else can fix it, but until you learn to handle and enjoy yourself in the present moment you will not feel the need for anyone else to fill your emptiness inside, it’s not a group effort
    You are your own hero

  16. If it’s not a choice, then I agree that being alone can be a problem. Some people have the same negative result if they are around others when they long for isolation/aloneness. When anything is forced it doesn’t usually turn out well.

  17. In the backstory for an article on the Alaskan tundra in National Geographic, the photographer reported a chance encounter in the wild with an Inuit elder. The photographer observed that his inspiration was that many urban friends had come to trek in the tundra. The elder replied, “Yes, they are lonely.”

    In “The Lost Language of Plants,” Stephen Buhner reflects upon his experiences teaching urbanites how to grow plants in their apartments. Many of them reported it as a transformative experience in healing their sense of disconnection.

    Leading to this: my sense is that loneliness is a psychical condition suffered by gentler (or wounded?) personalities surrounded by thunderous projections of “Me! Mine!”

    As a corollary, I’d be curious whether certain ritual practices help protect isolates from loneliness – for example a Muslim maintaining the prayer schedule.

    1. Thank you for sharing these insights. Egoistic social contexts contribute to this sense of disconnection. I do think religious beliefs and practices can protect against loneliness. Not only are religious beliefs and practices social constructions that connect an individual to a tradition, but like gardening, it connects the individual to something beyond themselves.

  18. Steve: Great post and I do believe the issue of loneliness and social isolation are quite relevant to military veterans; particularly, but not exclusively, for those who have been medically released. Despite public campaigns, mental diagnoses continue to be very stigmatizing for veterans and their families. Most of them will not admit to feeling lonely but in my experience the role of therapists (beyond our official roles of focusing on evidence-based treatment of mental symptoms) often amounts to serving as their main social contacts – people who do not judge them, work to connect with them, and care about them. No matter how else we describe it, I believe that helpers of all types engage in a primary overarching task – connecting with people who are cut off from intimate contact with others. Thanks.

  19. There is an increasing trend in japan where individuals never leave their homes. They’ve named it as Hikikomori – Modern day recluse. Your article immediately reminded me of it. You’ve highlighted some very pertinent points.

  20. After nearly a year of social Hell (Isolation), I can gladly, and voluntarily say…,”Been there, done that, not looking back…”…

    Things have gotten immensely better, and there is light at the end of the tunnel (so to speak), and it’s no train.

    By the way,…

    Hi Steve, nice to meet you. Have a joke: “My Lord, the peasants are revolting….”… “Of course, I know they smell.”

  21. Loneliness may be a reason people spend so much time in doctors’ offices. It does seem current lifestyles lead to loneliness. Private automobiles instead of public transportation. Single-family houses. Decline of churches, social clubs, community gathering places. Private offices. Television also isolates, as it represents a built-in companionship substitute for so many. I wonder if social media is an adaptation that grew out of simultaneous desires for relationship but fear of too much intimacy.

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