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Americans are more lonely, and it can be a health hazard
According to a nationwide survey, nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out, and one in four Americans rarely feel as though there are people who really understand them. More and more people are feeling lonely every day, and that feeling can be detrimental in the long run.
“Loneliness has been linked to many different health issues,” said Meredith Williamson, PhD, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “It has been associated with depression, and depression has corresponding risks of high blood pressure, obesity and alcohol and drug abuse.”
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a nebulous description and one that takes some defining. Psychologically speaking, loneliness doesn’t require a person to be socially isolated (a term used to describe being physically outside of contact). Being lonely means feeling disconnected from others, yet having the desire for a connection or a relationship.
The amount of social networking required to stave off loneliness varies from person to person, and there is no threshold for eliminating the feeling of loneliness. Feeling lonely (even in a crowded room, as the saying goes) does seem associated with poorer health outcomes.
Importance of relationships
There are different types of relationships that someone experiencing loneliness could be missing: intimate, relational and collective. Intimate relationships are in reference to a spouse or significant other, ‘relational’ relationships refers to one’s network of close friends and relatives, and ‘collective’ relationships mean group affiliations and connections to society.
“Intimate relationships, such as marriages, are a source of intimate connection and those who are in intimate relationships—where they feel supported—are less likely to experience high levels of loneliness,” Williamson said. “But the biggest predictor of loneliness is relational connections. Having strong relationships with several close friends or family members has been shown to have tremendous benefits for social needs.”
Identifying where social shortcomings can be important in fixing, or adding, a relationship. For example, in many cases, volunteering can help increase a one’s feelings of a fulfilled collective relationship, but it won’t necessarily help someone who is recently divorced and feeling intimate loneliness.
Society is more connected, but more lonely
There is no specific reason why someone is lonely, but there are some statistics that point to contributing factors. In the United States, about 40 to 50 percent of married couples get divorced, which could open a void in intimate and relational loneliness (if your spouse had a role in your friendship circle and the loss of the relationship leads to loss of mutual friends).
Also, research suggests that increased media screen activities may have caused a rise in depression and suicide among young Americans. The study also found that people who spend less time looking at screens and more time having social interactions in real life are less likely to be depressive or suicidal.
Williamson also credits a shift toward a nomadic and on-the-go type of society that makes social circles with family, friends and acquaintances less readily available for companionship.
“Our society also moves around a bit more than previously,” Williamson said. “Jobs aren’t as steady, and there’s not as much closeness as people may need, and that can really contribute to feeling lonely.”
Loneliness by gender
According to one study, single men showed higher levels of loneliness than single women, whereas only small differences in loneliness were found in married subjects.
This could be explained by societal habits and the ability to form new friendships, possibly in new locations when someone moves due to work or school. Findings from the Movember Foundation found that 2.5 million British men reported having “no close friends” and women more likely having somebody to turn to in a crisis.
The importance of making new friends, and keeping old friends, can’t be overstated—especially as lives continue to change over the years. Combating loneliness could be a way to help address issues of mental health and suicide—where men are more than 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women.
As a positive example other men might emulate to remain connected: One group of friends have been playing the same game of “tag” for over 20 years, and has included some interesting tactics, including hiding in trunks and tagging someone at their father’s funeral. This goofy story about a group of middle-aged male friends has made national headlines and even was made into a movie slated to hit theaters in June 2018.
When it comes to dealing with loneliness, Williamson recommended cognitive behavioral therapy —a form of psychotherapy that modifies emotions, behaviors and thoughts—with a mental health professional.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy helps modify maladaptive cognitions about oneself in relation to social interactions and social relationships, and it can also address underlying mental health conditions that may be contributing to the experience of loneliness,” Williamson said. “The reason for the psychotherapy recommendation is that encouraging people to engage in social situations has not been found to produce significant benefit since it is the perceived quality of relationships and the ability to give-and-take in relationships that seems to matter most.”
Although it may feel uncomfortable, it’s best to tell your health care provider if you’re feeling lonely. Williamson noted that health care providers may not screen for loneliness, but they do screen for depression.
“If you’re feeling that your mental state is at a degree to where it’s impacting your life or effecting your ability to function, then you should tell your health care provider,” Williamson said. “Loneliness is closely related to other mental health concerns, and you and your provider can determine a proper course of action.”
“is that encouraging people to engage in social situations has not been found to produce significant benefit since it is the perceived quality of relationships and the ability to give-and-take in relationships that seems to matter most.
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