This Spring, two major studies were released on the subject of loneliness and the tangible impact it has on our society. I wrote the following article for a secular magazine, but it was never published. Now, as I prepare for a series of talks on my new book, Hand in Hand, Walking with the Psalms through Loneliness, I decided to share it as a post on the subject. I wrote it with no reference to God, but see if you can find Him in there.
I never wanted to be the lonely one. But at 49 years old with 17 moves behind me, I know a little about the subject. If I could have picked a topic to live, study, or expound upon, loneliness would not have been it. I would have picked a more arrogant, independent kind of grievance… something that would have reflected well on my image of self-control, and one that others would slightly admire. But not loneliness. Nobody wants to talk about that, or so I thought.
The fact of the matter is, people are talking about it. The topic keeps cropping up in mainstream media publications, social media, cultural blogs and more. Much of it has been generated by two new reports published in the journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science, (1) by leading psychologists from Brigham Young University (2) and the University of Chicago (3). According to these reports, loneliness is an epidemic in our country, and the general population is at a loss as to how to manage the solitary emotion.
In what one journalist called “the age of loneliness,”(4) one in five Americans say they are lonely. Social isolation is the foremost, pressing concern, despite the fact that social media is a primary source of communication and interaction. It is now reported that loneliness is a greater threat to health in the elderly than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and twice as deadly as obesity (5). But the threat is even greater and growing in the younger generation, according to the Mental Health Foundation (6). Ironically, these studies and statistics show we are not alone in our feelings. But that doesn’t make us feel better, knowing the rest of the world is lonely, too.
What is going on in the world that is causing dejection and sense of personal loss across the board? Scientific and psychological studies summarize that technology and social media dilute relationships rather than substantiate them. We can understand that concept, as we are confined to the average tweet of 31 characters or less. How can we express ourselves deeply or fully in our modern modes of communication? Do we have something more to express? Or has life just got too shallow?
Maybe that’s it. Our cultural obsession with materialism, happiness, and immediate gratification all deflect meaningful access to more substantive intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities, leaving us starved for them. Western lifestyle drips with abundance in every material way, but this newest epidemic of loneliness is one that expresses a population besieged by emptiness and loss. We want to be full, but what we satiate ourselves with has little substance, so we hunger for something.
I do not believe in “chronic loneliness”, as some reports like to term it. But I do believe in passion. There is a reason loneliness is a pervasive condition plaguing our environment. What our culture has inhibited, in ways of relationships and community, has drawn up in us a passion to be known, to be heard, to belong, even to be loved. Our loneliness might be seen as a cry for deeper connection with the world and those around us – a genuine need for intimacy. In that sense, loneliness becomes our catalyst to change, and it is a good thing. There is something we can do about our own loneliness and that of others. Here are five things we can do to change our world:
- Celebrate your common story. Look around you, find how your life intertwines with others. What things make you alike? What things do you share in common? In what ways do your lives have a common story? Look deeply – past the surface. Celebrate that common story. It makes you neighbors… good neighbors…maybe even relatives… maybe even brothers and sisters.
- Take something off your plate. Our lives are too full of activities and accomplishments. Make more room for people in your life. If being with others, developing real relationships, is a priority, carve out time for it. Honor that commitment. What we make first in our lives will be foremost in our lives.
- Invest yourself in others. Spend your spare time doing something kind or gracious for another. Give yourself to someone in a way that costs you something. Then you are doing something real. There will be real relationship, real reward as a result.
- Open up. Be vulnerable and real. If we want to combat loneliness, we are going to have to be honest with ourselves and with the world. Those superficial walls have to come down so people can come in. Then we can know others and be known by them.
- Think outside yourself. Look for something bigger than yourself. Connection to something that provides greater meaning, purpose, beauty, and community dispels feelings of isolation, desolation, and emptiness. Communities of faith offer this opportunity.
What if we reached out of ourselves to meet the loneliness of another? How might that impact our own feelings of isolation? What if we created a space where another could belong, be heard, be known – in person, where eyes can inquire, and eyebrows can ask questions, and hands can reach over and touch, and wisdom or hurt or appreciation can be seen in a countenance. I believe that as we do this, systematically, we will draw ourselves out of our own isolation, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual.
After 49 years, I am not the lonely one. The years have taught me that my need for companionship, friendship, intimacy and compassion makes me human. They add to my strength of being, because they drive me to people, communities and purposes that are noble and pure. And I have found them. Loneliness is not a weakness, but a hope for a longing filled. So when loneliness finds you, press through to find that which is noble and pure.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” Proverbs 13:12
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, and David Stephenson;
Perspectives on Psychological Science; March 2015 vol. 10 ,no. 2, 227-237.
3 “Loneliness Across Phylogeny and a Call for Comparative Studies and Animal Models”; John T. Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo, Steven W. Cole, John P. Capitanio, Luc Goossens, Dorret I. Boomsma; Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2015 vol. 10, no. 2, 202-212.