Loneliness is an Epidemic
The Cure is Contact
by Dan Gleason
Loneliness can be lethal. A study noted in the book Braving the Wilderness by Dr. Brene’ Brown puts loneliness in perspective with other health risks. Living with air pollution increases odds of dying 5 percent, living with obesity increases odds of dying 20 percent, excessive drinking increases odds 30 percent and living with loneliness increases odds 45 percent. Given its lethal potential, coming to grips with the causes of loneliness is important. Certainly, things have gotten worse for many people due to lockdowns and quarantines, but loneliness has been an increasing problem for many years.
People often think that there is something wrong with them or may believe they are not well liked. But loneliness is an epidemic with many causes, they include technology, smaller families, a more mobile population, less attendance at clubs and churches and other social venues. People who are lonely are not to blame; there is nothing wrong with these individuals.
Simple interactions with strangers can have a positive effect on well-being. So even now, it’s crucial to take advantage of and create more opportunities for social contact, whether online or in person (with a facemask or social distancing). Simple chats can make people feel great. People can take a moment to compliment or notice something about others, express gratitude when appropriate, initiate conversations and accept invitations to communicate with others.
Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast, works in the field of positive psychology. Dr. Martin Seligman also does work in this field. Santos calls for us to be careful about attentional hygiene. (I remember when our kids first got their smart phones and could text and check email all the time. It felt incredibly rude to me and now I catch myself doing it too.) The mere presence of a cell phone, laptop or tablet can be detrimental to relationships and in-person exchanges. As people rely more and more on devices, they tend to multitask, with phone alerts interrupting meals and meetings. Santos suggests that people “fight the screens” and get back some of that precious time. Pay attention to real-life conversations and interactions—be as present as possible.
Self-care is important. It may come in a solitary form like enjoying a favorite food or music. Treats can be helpful but may become self-indulgent to a fault. Contrast self-care (like a bubble bath) with doing nice things for other people. Santos’ research suggests that people get more out of being social, open and other-oriented than spending money pampering themselves.
Some simple suggestions to increase social IQ include sending quick texts to someone who comes to mind. Here are some suggested messages to start with:
- Thinking of you.
- When can we get together?
- Would you like to chat?
- I remember a time when we…
- Thank you for…
Other ideas could include sending small surprise gifts, doing random acts of kindness or handwriting snail-mail letters, which are increasingly rare.
These ideas and more could make someone else’s day better and at the same time boost the well-being of the giver.
Vulnerable populations are more susceptible to bouts of anxiety and depression. People who work in the service sector and those who don’t have childcare or elder care are particularly hard hit by the Covid situation. Finding ways to show empathy and support can be helpful for both the giver and receiver.
Reaching out requires some degree of risk (we may not always get the response we are hoping for). It may take numerous attempts to find the best way of contacting others. It is also important to respond to others’ efforts to reach out. Brown notes that there is often a certain amount of shame associated with feeling lonely. Be prepared to accept and encourage those other souls who also need and thrive on human contact and interaction.
Dr. Dan Gleason is the owner of The Gleason Center located at 19084 North Fruitport Road in Spring Lake. For more info: go to
TheGleasonCenter.com or call 616-846-5410. See ad page 14.