Our Loneliness Epidemic: Its Causes And Implications

Apr 16, 2020

By: John Hallwas | McDonough County Voice

The coronavirus epidemic, which demands social distancing and even home isolation to reduce its severity, is prompting an increase of loneliness—which has some very damaging consequences of its own. And we all need to both understand the complex implications of this growing psychological problem and reflect on how we must cope with it, both now and after we get Covid-19 under control.

Many recent articles have emphasized the health risks of loneliness. For example, Robin Wright, in a March 23 “New Yorker” article that’s available online, titled “How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll,” mentions the varieties of health damage that are associated with it:

“Studies show that the health consequences of prolonged loneliness are equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. . . . The condition can prompt cardiovascular disease and stroke, obesity, and premature death. It is also associated with a forty-percent increase in the risk of dementia, a study by the Florida State University College of Medicine concluded, in 2018.”

The chief reason for such bad health impact is that “anxiety and isolation exact a physical toll on the brain’s circuitry,” as Wright points out, “by triggering higher blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones, and inflammation.”

Our brains act that way because of the long development of humanity in a social environment of mutual support, in which “human beings were bound together by kinship, friendship, and all manner of tribal groupings,” as John Cacioppo and William Patrick point out in my favorite book on this subject, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” (2008). Back when “natural selection would have exacted a heavy price for any behavior that lessened the fitness [for survival] of the group or the individual,” social connection wasn’t just convenient or pleasant; it was essential. A separated person was in danger.

For modern people, loneliness also has severe psychological risks, including the onset of depression, which can not only make living an unpleasant struggle but, of course, can promote suicide—which has also been on the rise in our time. Some others who are lonely experience bouts of emotional upset. A lonely widow that my wife knows cries periodically, so Garnette makes a special effort to interact with her—and enjoys that personal contact, too.

In a fine article for the November 10, 2019 “New York Times,” titled “Let’s Wage a War on Loneliness,” Nicholas Kristof addressed the growing problem of loneliness just before the pandemic came along to make it worse. He mentions that it was already an international crisis, which compelled Great Britain to make it a national priority:

“Public health experts in many countries are debating how to address the ‘loneliness epidemic’ that corrodes modern life, but Britain has taken the lead: Last year it appointed a minister for loneliness. ‘It touches almost every one of us at some point,’ the current minister for loneliness told me. ‘It can lead to very serious health consequences for the individual, and it leads to the erosion of our society. . . .’”

Kristoff also points out some of the modern social changes that have been associated with the growing problem:

“Extended families have dissolved, and social institutions like churches, bowling leagues, and neighborhood clubs have frayed, so we are no longer deeply embedded in our communities. . . . And more than one fifth of adults in both the United States and Britain said in a 2018 survey that they often or always feel lonely. More than half of American adults are unmarried. . . . Also, a quarter of Americans now live alone, and as the song says, ‘one is the loneliest number.’”

Indeed, he is merely summarizing what some sociologists and psychologists have been asserting for a long time. Another book that I have, Philip Slater’s “The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point” (1970), indicated fifty years ago that social changes were leading to the crisis that is now so apparent in our country: “Despite all attempts to reverse direction, our society is still moving away from the instinctive sense of community that villagers had in the past—still moving with dizzying speed toward greater anonymity, impersonality, and disconnectedness.”

Of course, the fading of community in our time was my chief motivation for launching this “On Community” column for the “McDonough County Voice” back in 2009, and in the years since then I’ve written about matters like “The Social Dimensions of Our Selfhood,” “The Decline of Neighborliness,” and “Avoiding Disconnection and Loneliness in Old Age.” So, like some others, I have been associating the problem of loneliness with the erosion of togetherness and the decay of functioning community.

Slater’s book on loneliness in America also raises the issue of generational differences, for he sees older people as generally having a deeper sense of communal responsibility:

“By and large, the younger a person is, the less likely he or she is to have any instinctive communal responses. . . . Older people, on the other hand, still retain some vestigial ability to care about what happens to a group or community, and this is a valuable resource for seeking a more communal society.”

Also, loneliness may well be more of a psychological problem for older adults, who have experienced decades of togetherness, and have a deep social sense, but who eventually suffer disconnection through retirement, health issues, and the loss of friends and relatives. In short, the world they have related to so deeply becomes less personally engaging as they age. I suspect that future studies will be looking at the generational variations in “the loneliness epidemic.”

In any case, the coronavirus pandemic is definitely making a long-growing psychological problem worse, and we need to ponder what can be done to mitigate it. As gatherings of all kinds are avoided now, this is an especially good time for residents to chat with neighbors (from a safe distance) on the sidewalk, for example, or by phone, and build a better sense of social connection. Churches and civic organizations might also ponder ways to extend meaningful relationships beyond their own memberships, realizing that aside from practical helpfulness—which is important in itself—great contributions can be made through simply meeting the need for meaningful human contact, in a safe manner.

Our small towns in in western Illinois might use the current emergency situation to rely more on personal outreach, to identify individuals who are lonely and help keep them connected. Any such approach that developed during the coronavirus outbreak would also be a wonderful effort to continue after we develop a Covid-19 vaccine and get things under permanent control—for the loneliness epidemic is an increasingly serious threat to our health and well-being, too, and there will never be a medical treatment to prevent it.

Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the “McDonough County Voice.”

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