Texas Tech faculty members say numerous factors contribute to loneliness, but simple steps can help alleviate its effects.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you're experiencing loneliness, Texas Tech has resources available at its Beyond Okay.
For as long as there have been people, there has been loneliness. Poets and writers have told of its impact. Songs have been sung about it, and for just about every group of insiders, there is at least one person on the outside looking in.
Now, with the fractures and fissures of a years-long pandemic still fresh, comes a sobering report from the U.S. Surgeon General that, simply put, says today's loneliness has a constellation of negative health consequences similar to those of smoking cigarettes a generation or so ago.
“There's no single factor that explains it all,” said Michael Murphy, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Psychological Sciences. “One thing that comes to mind quickly is many people identify it with the increased use of smartphones and social media, technologies that ostensibly are trying to connect us in ways we've never been connected before.”
Technology, flawed though it might be sometimes, isn't the only contributor. Other factors have coalesced over the past few decades to the point where loneliness has now been classified as an epidemic-level public health threat.
“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling – it harms both individual and societal health,” reads a letter within the report from Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general. “It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.”
Research bears out the fact that people are built for community, and social isolation reinforces a host of negative emotions and accompanying health consequences.
“We have facts that are consistent across time and context,” Murphy said. “The research clearly shows humans have a fundamental drive and need to belong, and when we don't belong, we feel lonely and outcast. The same neural pathways that are involved with physical pain are activated by these social patterns. We are really driven to find community.”
By and large, people were feeling more disconnected from each other before COVID-19 became part of the everyday vernacular. Now, on the other side of the pandemic, loneliness and isolation are playing no favorites, impacting virtually every demographic, although some groups are being hit harder than others.
“I think the pandemic definitely increased loneliness where social ties were dampened because people weren't able to be around each other for a while,” said Caroline Cummings, assistant professor in psychological sciences. “It also depended on where they lived because even though some states opened up, that didn't mean people were willing to reconnect, go on trips, travel and see each other.”
In a world where mobile phones are ubiquitous and social media channels are jammed with round-the-clock opportunities to connect, people are now not only lonely on their own, but also lonely together.
“You have this phenomenon where a group of friends will be sitting together in a room not talking to each other but instead looking at their phones,” Murphy said. “They're not attending to each other. That has become common. The literature even calls it the problem of being alone together.”
Murphy also pointed to social media, which can be divisive, causing people to limit their interactions to brief and sometimes volatile exchanges with people who see the world differently.
“It tends to favor an us-versus-them extreme and doesn't involve the same level of connection,” he said.
Community also plays a part as people overall are less engaged in group activities ranging from attending religious services to volunteerism to joining civic organizations to backyard neighborhood gatherings.
“Those are all decreasing, and those were all really important sources of community historically,” he said. “That combined with people being more transient today. Historically, people grew up and died within a close proximity of each other.”
Said another way, people knew their neighbors, but more importantly, they trusted them and would ask them to safeguard their home when they were out of town, check their mail or care for their pets.
In the earliest stages of the pandemic before vaccines became widely available, people were asked to practice social distancing – basically staying away from anyone who wasn't part of their household. Assisted living centers and other places where those especially vulnerable to the virus lived were locked down for months at a time with residents deprived of outside human contact.
All of this took a toll in ways still being discovered as new research becomes available.
“We have seen depression, anxiety and those sorts of experiences increasing in the post-pandemic world,” Cummings said. “One of the main components of depression is loneliness and the helplessness and isolation that people feel as a result. The research is showing there are increases in mental health problems, especially looking at before the pandemic compared to after.”
The surgeon general's report suggests the cure for the nation's widespread loneliness problem is making meaningful social connections.
“We have the power to respond,” he writes. “By taking small steps every day to strengthen our relationships and by supporting efforts to rebuild social connection, we can rise to meet this moment together.”
One positive is by making this public health menace so visible, it will be followed by funding and action, meaning it is possible to make the same kind of progress against loneliness as continues to be made against smoking (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking rates have declined across the board for most of the past 30 years).
“I think from the clinical side of things, just having that statement and position the surgeon general noted will keep it at the forefront of people's minds,” Cummings said. “Someone who is working with clients, who might not otherwise have known, may start screening for loneliness. There will be funding that is going to be helpful, so it will be exciting to see how foundations and government agencies respond.”
It will also require something of a shift in thinking by people, but one that is manageable. It could be as simple as plugging into a volunteer experience or an affinity group.
“This acknowledgment by the surgeon general is huge, and there will be investment made in how we can solve this,” Murphy said. “I think it's also really important to remember that humans are, on average, resilient. Resilience is the norm rather than the exception.”
Cummings agreed, saying a little bit of intentionality and vulnerability can go a long way.
“Part of it is scheduling, making sure you write it down and say you plan to reach out to your friend at 5 p.m. each Tuesday,” she said. “Simple steps like that can make a difference, and scheduling it increases the likelihood we will follow through on what we're doing.
“And the other important thing is to be more reflective and check in with people that we're supporting, making sure we're giving them what they need. Just communicate and be open.”