As part of our evolution, humans lived in tribes for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. In the wild, we depended on each other to survive. Being isolated or separated from the group spelled quick extinction. So, our bodies evolved to signal the state of being separated as a fight or flight survival stress response state – a state of emergency.
Cut to our present day, and this evolutionary mechanism is still active. Any time we feel lonely, it triggers our stress response and staying triggered like this has important consequences.
Loneliness affects our mental and physical health. We are at greater risk for developing heart disease, dementia, and depression; it lowers our immunity, so we are more prone to infections. And loneliness in the workplace has been shown to lower productivity, creativity, engagement, and team collaboration.
Unfortunately, loneliness is increasing at an alarming rate worldwide. In the United States alone in 2020, pre-pandemic, 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely. Surprisingly, 71% of them were millennials, 79% were Gen Z and 50% were baby boomers. In the United Kingdom, the spread of loneliness is so troubling that they appointed a Minister for Loneliness to address this issue.
Loneliness is not the same as social isolation. It does not refer to being alone in solitude. It is not the same as depression. It is not even the number of friends that you have. Loneliness refers to the quality rather than the quantity of our relationships.
When we are lonely, we feel that our intimate and social needs are not being met adequately. For example, when something important, good, or bad, happens in our lives, we don’t have anyone to talk to about it.
Why are we so lonely?
There are many reasons why we’re so lonely – like our increasing dependence and sometimes addiction to our phones and technology; the fact that we often move, live and work in cities or countries far away from our families of origin; and our 21st century pace of life, which has us running on a hamster wheel from one task to the next, stressed out and overwhelmed, unable to make time to develop our relationships and communities.
The coronavirus pandemic has made this situation worse – with lockdowns, the need to physically isolate ourselves, the loss of our jobs or working from home.
So how might we mitigate loneliness?
Luckily, just as loneliness triggers a stress response, social connection has the opposite effect – it builds mental and physical resilience. In other words, our brains are wired for social connection and compassion. When we reach out to connect with others or to help them, our physiology responds by lowering stress in our body. Our muscles relax, our heart rate and breathing slows down. Our blood pressure decreases, and our immunity improves so we are less prone to infections.
Overall, the levels of inflammation in our cells goes down. And given that inflammation is the starting point of many chronic diseases, it means that it helps to protect us against diabetes, obesity, some cancers, and autoimmune disorders. All in all, research shows that when we connect with others and give back, we end up being less stressed, happier, more satisfied with life, and we live longer than others who do not.
Whether you are feeling lonely, or you’d like to help others who are, here are 3 ways you can build greater connection:
- Start by giving back in small or big ways. Focus on one random act of kindness a day, maybe even challenge yourself to do that for 30 days straight. How can you volunteer, mentor, coach others?
- Research shows that it is not just our close friendships or relationships that matter. All our connections, even the short interactions we have with acquaintances or strangers contribute to our happiness and a greater sense of belonging in our communities. So don’t hesitate to smile or say hello to those you come across throughout your day, even if you don’t know them well. Join or create a local or online community. There are countless options that can match your hobbies or other areas of interest.
- Finally, practice meditation or mindfulness for a few minutes each day. These practices have been shown to strengthen the brain networks that make it easier for us to be kind, generous, empathic, and compassionate to others.
Let’s beat loneliness and take one small step today towards spreading greater well-being by tapping into our superpower of social connection.
Parneet Pal, M.B.B.S., M.S. is a Harvard- and Columbia-trained physician working at the intersection of lifestyle medicine, technology and behavior change. An educator and science communicator, she applies her subject matter expertise to optimize human health and its impact on business leadership and planetary wellbeing. She strongly believes we can create a compassionate, equitable society where health is the default.