Earlier this month, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a public health advisory raising the alarm about the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” affecting our nation.
Dr. Murthy referred to data showing that about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness, even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to be cut off from loved ones and support systems for nearly two years.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” Murthy said in the advisory. “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.”
Humans are wired to need social connection. It is essential to nearly every aspect of health and well-being. According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services release, health consequences of insufficient social connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%, according to the release. Beyond the physical impact, loneliness contributes substantially to common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
In his advisory, Murthy proposed an array of policy, community and societal changes to foster connections. But there are also strategies we can follow, as individuals, to cope with loneliness, avoid isolation and strengthen our relationships. Some include:
- Acknowledging that you are lonely and sharing your feelings with someone else. There is nothing embarrassing about feeling lonely. If you talk about it to someone it may alleviate those feelings and you will likely find that you are not alone.
- Practicing gratitude. Gratitude is consistently linked with feeling more positive emotions, savoring positive experiences, having better health, dealing effectively with adversity, and building strong relationships. Consider starting a gratitude journal. Getting into the habit of expressing gratitude daily can help undo some of the pessimism and negativity that can be linked to feeling lonely.
- Making self-care a priority. Get enough sleep, exercise, meditate and spend time outdoors. The better you feel physically, the stronger and more positive you’ll feel mentally.
- Taking the time to reach out to family and friends. Be proactive about strengthening your relationships. Don’t be shy about picking up the phone, sending a text, or setting up a time to get together. Your friends and family will appreciate the outreach and you’ll feel less lonely.
- Performing acts of Kindness – Reaching out and helping others enhances your feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy; “I can make a difference.” Helping others is altruistic and community-focused, rather than remaining only self-centered and inner-focused.
- Pursuing new hobbies. You may discover new passions and tap into your creativity. By finding new activities that you enjoy you will have something to look forward to and make new connections with others who share similar interests.
- Volunteering in your community. Research shows, being of service to others increase and sustain happiness and improves health. Volunteering to reduce suffering and improve others’ lives has been found to increase physical health, life satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and meaning. It decreases stress and enhances mental health while also providing opportunities to meet new people.
- Cutting back on things that lead to disconnection. Limit screen time or time spent on social media, avoid distractions during conversations with loved ones, distance yourself from unhealthy relationships, etc.
If you are a parent, remember that you are your child’s most influential teacher when it comes to building and maintaining connections. Foster the relationship with your child through love, empathy, nurturing and support. Spend time with them without distraction. Encourage them to hang out with friends, participate in group activities and pursue their passions.