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Are you lonesome tonite?

February 21, 2016

When Elvis Presley crooned these forlorn words back in 1960 only 25 per cent of us[1] admitted to feeling occasionally lonely. Our friends were close, our relatives closer, and our on line time was limited to something like 500 telephone calls per capita annually[2] in Canada.

Our face-to-face interactions provided us with all the voice inflection, body language, facial expressions and pheromones[3] the experts contend we need to pump up our immune systems, enjoy healthy relationships, manage stress and bring meaning to our lives. In fact, many of us as kids can admit to moments when we sought out closets, washrooms, basements and tree houses to take a break from intimacy and just be alone.

Today those hiding spots have become the norm and the amount of time and effort we invest into avoiding real people contact has skyrocketed. More of us live alone than ever before and we’re becoming more dependant than ever on technology to do our schmoozing for us. Statistics Canada confirms the number of single person households is up from 6.8 in 1940 to 26.8 per cent today. Conversations with friends that used to take place on the front stoop, over the back fence, at school or the local grocer have become sound bites exchanged via email, SMS, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and social networks. At the close of 2013 Facebook was proud to point out that 1.23 billion people per month logged into its social media site, up from one million in 2004[4].

As Elizabeth Renzetti put it in her recent related Globe and Mail article, “It is the great irony of our age that we have never been better connected, or more adrift.”[5]

"…We have never been better connected, or more adrift.”

Of course no one wants to admit to feeling lonely. That’s for emotional cripples, losers, the needy and the troubled souls who show up in newspaper headlines right? Not necessarily says University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. His studies involving diverse groups of healthy young adults indicate that “everyday folks who feel the pain of isolation very acutely…have no more in common with the dangerously troubled souls who make headlines than does anyone else.”[6]. Apparently people who describe themselves as lonely have as many social connections as those who don’t and spend no more time alone than do those who feel connected. Most experts say we become lonely when there is a mismatch between how much social connection we want and how much our environment provides.

Canadians of all ages, races, religions and walks of life are at similar risk for loneliness and its morbid consequences. Researchers with the Vancouver Foundation were surprised to discover from a recent survey of 4,000 Vancouverites, aged 25-34 years of age that their biggest issue was feeling lonely, isolated, and unconnected to their communities. A whopping one third of the participants said they were alone more than they like. In yet another study, two-thirds of 34,000 Canadian university students reported feeling “very lonely” over a period of 12 months. Statistics Canada tells us about 21 per cent of Canadians 65 years and up report feeling lonely all the time.

In the U.S. the statistics are even more concerning. A Wall Street Journal report says the number of Americans feeling lonely has doubled over the last 30 years to 40 per cent, up from 20 per cent in the 1980s[7]. Duke University research has discovered that people have fewer and fewer confidants with which to discuss personal and important matters. Between 1985 and 2004 that number dropped from three to two and the percentage of people without anyone to confide in tripled[8].

One of the major forces driving the shift from genuine face-to-face to superficial, virtual communication is the lack of comfort with traditional interpersonal communication. Sherry Turkle PhD, author of Alone Together, says we find it all too easy to sidestep difficult personal interactions and go somewhere else where it does not have to be dealt with, even when it’s so important to stay and learn how to get along[9]. The MIT professor says “people who choose to devote large portions of their time to connecting online are more isolated than ever in their non-virtual lives, leading to emotional disconnection, mental fatigue and anxiety.” This is particularly a problem with Generation Y and Millennials says Susan Tardanico in a recent Forbes post. “Studies show that these generations—which will comprise more than 50 per cent of the workforce by 2020—would prefer to use instant messaging or other social media than stop by an office and talk with someone.”[10]

"People who choose to devote large portions of their time to connecting online are more isolated than ever in their non-virtual lives…”

So what’s so wrong with feeling lonely? It would appear as our social isolation has increased over the past 50 years our levels of happiness have gone down and rates of suicide and depression have multiplied. In short, it causes us pain. Loneliness causes us social pain, which translates into physical pain, because it is against our programming to be alone. Says Cacioppo, “Because early humans were more likely to survive when they stuck together, evolution reinforced the preference for strong human bonds by selecting genes that support pleasure in company and produce feelings of unease when involuntarily alone.” That’s the reason that correctional institutions choose solitary confinement as the penalty of last resort[11].

The fallout from increased loneliness for adults, and in particular children, is too massive to describe in one blog article. One thing we know for sure is that we are increasingly escaping from the messiness and demand of human relationships by hiding behind the internet, in fact using technology to keep others at distances we can control, says Psychologist Turkle. In conversation, she says, we tend to one another, to tone and nuance. We are called upon to see things from another’s point of view and it teaches us patience. “…It is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”

The troubling numbers and even scarier consequences are causing many to identify “loneliness” as the next major public health crisis, or as “the new Black Death.” A Brigham Young University study released this past spring claims if you perceive yourself as lonely your risk of death goes up about 26 per cent. If you live an isolated life your risk jumps to 29 per cent and if you live alone that number goes up to 32 per cent[12]. Authors of the study are urging other researchers to look into growing loneliness in the under 59 year range because their evidence shows that middle-aged adults are at greater risk of mortality when alone than elders.

Both the Brigham Young study and the work of Ami Rokach, a York University psychologist and lecturer who has been researching loneliness for over 30 years, say loneliness can lead to illness and premature death. Rokach points to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability and even suicide as possible outcomes. A 2000 study conducted by Dr. Robert Wilson at Rush University Medical Centre found older individuals’ risk of Alzheimer’s increased by 50 percent for each point on its 1-5 loneliness rating scale[13].

"Loneliness is contagious…"

Cacioppo’s research with colleagues shows that loneliness suppresses the immune system and cardiovascular function and increases the body’s production of stress hormone. “It causes wear and tear on a cellular level, and impairs sleep…these changes in physiology are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave”[14].

In his book Fidelity Stories Canadian poet Michael Redhill talks about his depression and refers to loneliness as if it is a cancer type condition that metastasizes, which is exactly what Cacioppo and his colleagues found in their 2009 study. They discovered not only does loneliness increase amongst friends and family, but it extends up to three degrees of separation, spreading like a contagious process. If we feel lonely we not only drive away the friends we have, but transmit our feeling of loneliness to our remaining buddies, which restarts the cycle[15].

When we start using words like contagious it makes it sound like loneliness might become as dangerous an epidemic, as say, obesity. That’s exactly what the Brigham Young researchers concluded in their study. They compare the research and warnings being issued about loneliness now, to those given about obesity in the 1980s. Like the obesity outbreak that eventually became epidemic, received widespread media coverage, and the attention of public health policy, the researchers predict loneliness will rise to the same status by 2030. In fact, they say loneliness poses a greater threat to our mortality than obesity and if we live in affluent nations we are even more at risk.

But not everybody sees us a solitary, sick and shattered in the future. Some secrets as to how to battle loneliness can be found as close as your journal. In Part Two of this blog post I will let you in on how journaling can help you sort out your feelings, patch up relationships and make important decisions that can prevent the black death from visiting your neighborhood any time soon.

[1] Emily White. Lonely—Learning to Live with Solitude. McClelland Stewart, Toronto: 2010. Pg. 74.

Note by “we” I am referring to North Americans generalized from statistics quoted by White.

[2] Statistics Canada. “Telecommunications carrier industry, telephones and telephone calls, 1946 to 1975” Viewed July 19/15.

[3] What’s released when we actually meet face-to-face.

[4] Ami Sedghi, “Facebook: 10 years of social networking in numbers.” Accessed July 19/15.

[5] Elizabeth Renzetti, “Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming.” The Globe and Mail, November 23/13. Accessed July 18/15.

[6] John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick. Loneliness—Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W.W. Norton & Company, New York; 2008.

[7] Elizabeth Bernstein, “When Being Alone Turns Into Loneliness, There Are Ways to Fight Back,” The Wall Street Journal, November 4/13. Accessed July 17/15.

[8] Richard Handler, CBC News Posted March 3, 2009. Accessed July 19/15.

[9]Michael Price , “Alone in the Crowd.” American Psychological Association, June 2011, Vol. 42. No. 6. Accessed July 17/15.

[10] Susan Tardanico, “Is Social Media Sabotaging Real Communication?” Forbes April 30, 2012. Accessed July 17/15.

[11] Cacioppo & Patrick. Pgs 11 & 15.

[12] Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris and David Stephenson. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta Analytic Review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 2015. Vol. 10 (2). Pgs 227-237.

[13] Emily White. Pg. 129.

Note: The loneliness scale had five points, with 1 indicating low loneliness and 5 indicating high loneliness.

[14] Renzetti

[15] John Cacioppo, James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. “Alone in the Crowd: The Stucture and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network.” J. Pers Soc Psychol. 2009 Dec. 97(6). Pgs 977-991.

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