Loneliness, Part II: Epidemic or Not? Recent Research Findings

If you are a follower of my blogs, you may remember one I posted titled “Epidemic of Loneliness” (August 3, 2023) where I recounted that Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., had cited loneliness as a major problem. In fact, he called it “one of our generation’s greatest challenges.” Two years later, loneliness remains not only very much with us, but new research findings have underscored the lasting effects of those so afflicted.

As I wrote in that earlier biog, I am very lucky not to suffer from that affliction. With a loving husband, sons, grandchildren and friends in our lives, I am most blessed. Additionally, of course, I’m in a profession that gives me meaning and joy every week as the community meets on Sundays.

But in any case the problem exists for many. In fact, in a New York Times piece this month, Christina Caron writes that the problem of loneliness seems to have a U-shaped curve — she writes, “Loneliness has become a problem at both the beginning and the end of our life span.” She asks “how are we supposed to connect with one another when nobody talks anymore?” Not only have participation in community and religious organizations declined, but more of our social interactions are occurring online instead of face-to-face.

In a study published last month in Psychological Science, researchers report on that U-shaped curve. They find high levels of self-reported loneliness in the young end of the life curve, and a decline as people approach midlife “only to rise especially pronounced” in the elderly. The shape of the curve is not particularly surprising because in mid-life, many are working, have colleagues to interact with, are generally married or with a partner, and just tend to be more engaged socially than otherwise. But unchecked, loneliness can become dangerous to our overall physical and mental health.

Drawing from a number of researchers, Caron suggests the following: First, she advises not to wait until old age to discover that you lack “a good quality social network.” Studies show that most folks need at least four to six close relationships in their lives. And it’s not just the number, but also the quality of those relationships. But apparently a variety of relationships is also important. One researcher, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University, writes that “different relationships can fulfill different kinds of needs. Just like you need a variety of foods to get a variety of nutrients, you need a variety of types of people in your life.”

So ask yourself: Are you able to rely on and support the folks in your life? And are your relationships mostly positive? If so, this all benefits your mental and physical health. Caron offers other suggestions that, while obvious, are nevertheless essential such as joining a group, cutting back on social media, and trying to take the initiative in small gestures like dropping off food for a neighbor — getting that “mood boost” that comes from helping.

In another article titled “Loneliness Shapes Behaviors, and May Reshape our Brains” (New York Times, May 10, 2024) [see lead photo], Dana Smith observes that humans evolved to be social creatures probably because there was safety in numbers from predators of various kinds. Some experts think loneliness may have emerged as a stress response to motivate our early human ancestors to seek out companionship for survival. But just like anxiety emerged as a motivator for “fight or flight” against danger, if either of these stress responses become chronic, harmful effects can show up at the level of our brain's neural pathways. With respect to the loneliness stress reaction, Anna Finley, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out the following:

In chronic episodes of loneliness, there seems to be a kind of backfire because people become especially attuned to social threats or signals of exclusion, which can then make it scary to unpleasant for them to interact with others. ... Even positive encounters may be less rewarding for them. In the brain, chronic loneliness is associated with changes in areas important for social cognition, self-awareness and processing emotions. ... All of these different things can affect how our brains age.

Well anyway, I guess we can’t solve the problem of loneliness across the lifespan in one biog. But trying to make new friends, joining like-minded groups, and helping a neighbor can perhaps mitigate the problem. So as Catherine Price writes in the New York Times (January 20, 2024), when the world feels dark, seek delight! [See second photo below.] “Taking time to notice life’s small joys can improve your health and your outlook.”

Amen, brothers and sisters!

 

 

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.