I was surprised to learn of our newest health epidemic.  As a physician, I am accustomed to the public health campaigns stressing the dangers of smoking tobacco, excess alcohol, obesity, cholesterol elevations, not wearing seatbelts, and lack of exercise.  Now I must add to the list of things to be avoided “loneliness.”  Dr. Vivek Murthy, who recently served as our Surgeon General, called it an “epidemic of loneliness.”  One study cited that the number of one-person households has increased steadily since 1951 when it was 7.4%; recently in 2016 it was 28.2%.

The dictionary definition of loneliness is “sadness because one has no friends or company.”  It is not the same as being “alone.”  As Paul Tillich, noted theologian of the 20th century, astutely wrote, “Loneliness is the ‘pain of being alone’ while solitude is ‘the glory of being alone.’”  We all need a certain amount of solitude, but most of us have crossed the line upon occasion and visited loneliness.

One large study involving several thousand individuals found 14% of the general population who described themselves as “lonely.”  That is one in every seven people.  The problem is more acute among the poor: in households with less than $20,000 annual income, one third described themselves as lonely.  Interestingly, one-third of people in the 18-24 years old bracket considered themselves as “lonely.”

In a day and time when we all seem to have more technological connectedness than ever, it is paradoxical that we seem to lack community.

According to the medical studies, people who are lonely have a 26% higher mortality rate than their counterparts.  This makes the risk comparable to several other “major risks” such as smoking or moderate obesity.  How interesting that we screen for many issues that might impact one’s health and overlook this one.

In the meantime, what can we do for ourselves and others to build more meaningful social relationships?  Let’s start with simple conversations: put down the phone, look someone in the eyes, and listen attentively.  Start with the people closest to you.  Proximity and repetition will expedite matters.  One guru suggests that it takes 6-8 conversations to form a friendship.  Consider joining a group that shares a common interest, volunteer, sign up for a class…then show up and speak up.  You might just save a life…and it could be yours!

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