As a child, I had a solo best friend from first grade through third grade. Lori was a year older than me, but she lived right next door and we were inseparable. I moved to Fargo, ND just before fourth grade started, and was suddenly more shy and introverted than I remember being when I was younger. I developed good friends over time, but never that one “BFF” best friend. I was a bit of a loner, moving between groups, enjoying my school years, but never really feeling like I fit. Everyone got invited to my birthday parties, as I never wanted anyone to feel left out. I knew the hurtful ping of feeling excluded. Thankfully, my mother didn’t mind. We already had seven kids in our household, so 23 more was no problem.
But truth be told, I always felt a little lonely. And even more truthfully, I sometimes still feel that way. My sisters live far away. I regretfully never got in the habit of regular phone chats. I have a dozen friends that I consider very dear, but sometimes weeks or even months will go by without me being in touch. I know that they would gladly take my call and help me with just about anything. But being a stoic Scandinavian, I forge ahead and with my “I can get through this and anything else life throws at me” attitude. I don’t even think of asking for help in processing things, often not even from my husband.
Certainly, we are all busy with our own families, and life is not exactly leisurely. I’ve rearranged my schedule so that I can bring Grant to kindergarten at Nativity School several times a week, but I gaze wistfully at the small group of moms who stop for a chat each morning while I rush to the office. Good for them, and good for their health.
Research shows that meaningful connection is as vital as Vitamin C. It’s not surprising that loneliness can lead to depression, but few are aware that its impact on physical health and longevity rivals smoking and obesity. The 2010 U.S. Census found that 27% of us live alone, but loneliness is not really about being alone, it’s about feeling emotionally isolated. In 1980, 20% of adults reported feeling lonely. A recent survey showed that close to 40% of us struggle with loneliness. This can understandably happen because of a move, a job change, a divorce, or a death. Personal factors such as low self-esteem may play a role. But it can happen even when we are part of a family or work community, a team or a college dorm.
According to Dr. John Cacioppo, a scientist at University of Chicago, and author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, states that health risks associated with loneliness include:
• Depression and suicide
• Cardiovascular disease and stroke
• Increased stress levels
• Decreased memory and learning
• Antisocial behavior
• Poor decision-making
• Alcoholism and drug abuse
• The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
• Altered brain function
Cacioppo also reported that loneliness leads to a poorer diet, less exercise, more alcohol consumption and premature aging. It also impacts our immune response, as shown by a study of healthy college freshman. Those reporting feeling lonely had a poorer response to the flu shot, leaving them more vulnerable to infection.
Understanding the impact that loneliness has on us physically and emotionally may be spur change. Cacioppo suggests these strategies for making connections:
1. Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
2. Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests and values with you.
3. Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.
Loneliness often becomes chronic because it rarely triggers an urgent response in the person who suffers from it, and friends and family are often unaware of the problem. We live in an era of seemingly unlimited connection through our digital devices, but we seem to have lost the art of dinner parties and making time for meaningful conversations and community. Sometimes we need to push our comfort zones and take that dose of Vitamin C. For me, I’m going to pick up the phone more, and make a few more plans to connect with that delightful circle of friends and family that I have.