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Loneliness Is a Pandemic Too (And Here’s What We Can Do About It)

Mar 17, 2020

In many ways, modern society is both better positioned to handle a pandemic and woefully less prepared than ever before. I’m not talking about medical treatments, tests, and hospital beds—all of which are essential. But I’m thinking instead about relationships and social interactions.

In 2020 we are lonelier and more isolated than at any other point in our recorded past. On some level, I’m sure that makes it easier to remain in quarantine. We also have the technological tools to work from our homes without much impact on our output. We can get cough medicine delivered within hours and even speak with a doctor in absentia thanks to telemedicine.

But our isolation also makes us more vulnerable. Consider two different stories I heard this week. First, a single mother was frantically worried that she might get sick and not be able to find someone to watch her children while she was quarantined. Apparently, she didn’t have close friends or neighbors that she felt could be relied on. Another woman’s Twitter thread went viral after she was flagged down by an elderly woman in a grocery store parking lot who pressed cash and a list into her hand and begged her to buy her groceries, since she was so afraid of contracting the virus at her age.

When a crisis strikes, human beings need each other to survive. The survival of our species is almost entirely a story of teamwork. We may be slower than other species, without tough hides or keen senses, but we collaborate better than any other on the planet. When the going gets tough, humans get going together.

That’s one of dozens of reasons we are so vulnerable to the coronavirus now, when our social networks are weak, 43% of Americans have only one or no close friends, and there is profound mistrust among us. In the 1980s, 80% of us had a confidant who was not a family member; now that number is down to 57%. That’s a dangerous environment in which to introduce a pandemic, since so many people don’t know who to turn to if they become ill. In other words, as our real social networks dissolve, so does our safety net.

All four of my grandparents had open homes. Friends would stop by often, without calling first, and they’d be welcomed inside and offered coffee or water and a warm chat at the dining room table. I knew that wasn’t common, since my mother didn’t appreciate people who came to the house without calling first, and I had to make arrangements to spend an afternoon with my friends.

In my immediate circle, you didn’t “drop by.” But in my grandparents’ homes, the practice was not just accepted, but expected. If my grandmother heard that a friend was shopping at the JC Penney near her home, she’d say, “You were only a few blocks away. Why didn’t you come over?”

I loved afternoons in my grandparents’ house in L.A., lying on the living room floor with one of their L. Frank Baum books, the gauzy sunlight making stripes across my legs, while the adults chatted in the next room about music and mutual friends and the TV show Bonanza. I swore that when I grew up, I would follow their example and not my mother’s: Friends would be welcomed whenever they came to the door.

That’s not what happened, of course. I was too busy, on most nights, to invite people over, and no matter how many times I told people they could come at any time, not a single person has ever taken me up on that invitation in more than 20 years. My grandparents were never really lonely. Up until a couple years ago, I was.

As a society, we have become much more carefully scheduled, less social, and much lonelier. According to numerous surveys, social isolation has doubled among many adults since the 1990s, and social isolation is deadly. Loneliness and social isolation increase a person’s risk of death by 25% to 30%.

In terms of pure interaction, we’re more connected than ever before. If you can’t reach someone in an email, you can send a text. If it’s a real emergency, some of us pick up the phone. Barring that, we can send a message through Facebook or slide into their DMs on Instagram. But if “likes” satisfied our need to socialize, we would all feel a strong sense of communal belonging.

But we know on some level that’s not how it works. Just over two decades ago, most Americans had three close friends. Now that number is down to two and the percentage of people who report they have no one they could talk to about serious issues has risen to 25%. One in four Americans is socially isolated—no pandemic required.

Part of the problem is that we’re cutting out expressions of our basic humanness, because they’re “inefficient”: boredom, long phone conversations, hobbies, neighborhood barbecues, membership in social clubs. We smile at the anachronisms of the past when people had time for things like pickup basketball and showing slides of Hawaiian vacations to their friends. How quaint, we think, that our grandparents joined sewing circles.

But shouldn’t our ancestors have had less time than we do? After all, we have microwaves and dishwashers and gas lawnmowers and the internet! We have robot vacuums and AI assistants that tell us the weather and set our alarms. If you add up all the time saved through technological advancement over the past several decades, shouldn’t we have hours of excess time in which to do as we please?

And even in a time of crisis, deep, real social interaction is possible.

These are the questions I was asking in 2018 as I grappled with my own feelings of despair, long before a virus swept the planet. I would cancel plans to go to parties because I felt exhausted and stressed. All I wanted to do was sit on the couch, watch Netflix, and relax. But one of the most relaxing activities a human can engage in is social interaction.

And even in a time of crisis, deep, real social interaction is possible. “A rising tide can indeed lift a variety of boats,” John Cacioppo and William Patrick write in the book Loneliness, “but in a culture of social isolates, atomized by social and economic upheaval and separated by vast inequalities, it can also cause millions to drown.”

Back in 2018 I decided to prioritize social contact in my life and see whether it made a difference. When I climbed into a ride share, I made sure to chat with my driver. I called friends and made actual, concrete plans to meet for dinner or coffee, instead of ending emails with phrases “Let’s get together soon” or “It’s been ages! Let’s find time to grab dinner.” For the foreseeable future, those emails will end with “When’s a good time to call?” Or “Can we FaceTime this week? I’d love to hear your voice.”

When I started to make social interaction a focal point, I scheduled at least three or four dates with friends, just as I made sure I worked out several times a week. After a few months passed, I could see a difference. I was spending fewer nights tweeting and posting on social media, and I was also feeling happier, less stressed, and less pressed for time.

The clinical research backs up the personal findings. Our bodies and brains are primed to take advantage of authentic social interaction. Research has shown that having a rich social life makes a person less likely to get cancer or suffer a heart attack. People who feel at home in a community live longer, experience less stress, and are more likely to say their lives are meaningful.

Social contact (provided it’s not hostile) can even reduce pain and strengthen the immune system. The surgeon and author Atul Gawande says, “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic head injury.” That’s not of course a cure for COVID-19, but meaningful relationships can help us get through this hard time.

Loneliness is a warning sign for the human brain. It’s your biological “check engine” light. While occasional loneliness is fine, especially as it tends to drive you to seek out human connection, the chronic isolation that so many are feeling today is debilitating and dangerous. Authentic social interaction is the oil that keeps your cognitive and emotional engine running. Ignore the warning light at your peril.

Next time you get that warning, shut down your laptop and phone a friend. We need each other. Of course, now is not the time for open-door policies or in-person contact, but it is a good time to imagine what a life full of those things could look like. Work with a friend over Zoom. FaceTime a loved one. Show up—metaphorically and virtually. For now, that will have to be enough.

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