Is It Wise to Call Loneliness a Modern Health Epidemic?

It is becoming increasingly common to talk about loneliness as one of the predominant health epidemics plaguing society. In the U.K., they’ve even just appointed a Minister of Loneliness. To be fair, a lot of the conversation surrounding loneliness can be traced back to a sociology journal that reported in 2004 that one in four Americans reported having no confidants in their lives, compared to one in 10 reported in the the 1980s.

However, to be fairer still, that study was found to be based on faulty information, and one of its authors even distanced himself from the publication. While there are certainly other studies that point to an escalation in loneliness, what the aforementioned study clarifies is the reality that it is a truly difficult thing to quantify.

In other words, how lonely is too lonely? It’s something virtually all of us can relate to on some level. Most of us have experienced seasons of life where we’ve felt isolated. So when we read one of the hundreds of articles claiming loneliness as a modern health epidemic, it may not seem like too much of stretch.

But what if in claiming an epidemic, we inadvertently overlook those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of loneliness and isolation?


Why We Think We Feel It Now, Especially

Most of the theory surrounding loneliness draws on aspects of modern society that are unique challenges of modernity. There are two primary reasons that modern culture seems to promote loneliness:


Modern society promotes the individual more than any prior. This manifests itself in a lot of ways that have changed how we live life. We are less communal than we were generations ago, which means we’re often doing life alone.

Not only are we marrying less and having fewer children, as individuals age in today’s society they face a different dilemma than those several generations ago did. Families no longer remain physically together in multi-generational, single dwellings. Because employment is often the largest source of social interaction, retirement means years of aloneness.

As Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, told The Telegraph individuals in today’s society need to prepare for the social implications as well as the financial. Which is kind of crazy when you consider that between now and 2060 the number of Americans over the age of 65 will more than double. (Yours truly will be in that number.) That’s a lot of people in one of the most vulnerable categories for loneliness.


Social Media

This will come as no surprise, but there is an overwhelming amount of support for the idea that technology, and our dependence upon it, actually produces the opposite effect than its creators claim it is meant to produce.

Given the nature of social media, wherein we participate in each others lives by mostly sharing the best versions of ourselves, what research often points to is that social media can create a host of negative feelings about ourselves, most of which are connected to feelings of loneliness.

FOMO (fear of missing out), a quintessential millennial term, was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013. And according to an overview by Rutgers University on social media and mental health, that fear, along with other issues like depression, are tied to the “connection” found on social media.

Now that’s not to say that connection and community can’t be fostered online, but rather that this system of showcasing our best attributes is an inauthentic method of creating community, and that it can do more damage than good. In some extreme cases, social media can even foster relationship destroying behavior.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Loneliness

It’s important to note that there are different degrees of loneliness; they’re not all made the same, hence the debate.

Some loneliness can be good. It can prompt an individual to seek out community where before there was none. It can act as a driving force to signal to an individual that, relationally, things need to change. And it can also be a means of restoration. Sometimes, solitude allows one to recognize how context shapes behavior.

But it can also have detrimental health effects on an individual. Not having a good social network in the traditional sense is as bad for one’s health as a long-term illness and makes one 50 percent more likely to die prematurely.

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Additionally, research points to the truth that loneliness can have the same impact on one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So, it is true to see the risks that loneliness and isolation can pose to one’s health.

Don’t Distract From Those Who Need Community Most

If it’s true that there are qualities in modern society that foster loneliness, and if we’ve established that loneliness can take a toll on one’s health, then what reasons are there for cautioning against asserting that loneliness plagues all of society?

The first reason has already been noted: studies that focus on loneliness have to be taken with a grain of salt because they’re looking at something that is, in many ways, subjective.

The second reason, and this is really the driving force behind this entire piece of writing, is that there are communities that are especially prone to isolation, and it would be a shame for their needs to be washed out amid claims of an overarching problem within society.

Essentially, those most vulnerable to the most severe impacts of true loneliness are those who struggle to access the most communal parts of society. The poor and unemployed. The elderly. The migrants. The homeless. The displaced.

When Duquesne University outlined how to  safeguard those vulnerable, across the board among relevant organizations one of the primary things that has to happen is that social determinants must be improved to promote healthy living.

Again, this is in no way an effort to downplay the isolation that can be felt by those of us who are bitterly lonely and don’t fit in those categories.

Instead, it’s a plea to remember amidst what is being hailed an issue impacting everyone in society, to look for those among us who don’t have the agency to change their social support systems.

A great many of us, when lonely, feel so because we have forgotten to prioritize human interaction more than interaction with our technology. But for some, the isolation is not something they have any say over, and they are the ones that we should be prioritizing in relation to community building.

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