All the lonely people — where do they all come from? 🎵
Now, before you get all skeptical about the audacity of the pharmaceutical industry (as I initially did), let’s review some facts. Loneliness is a major health epidemic for technologically advanced societies of the 21st century. “Being lonely increases the risk of dying earlier by 26 percent, which is actually more than obesity,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, the scientist behind this loneliness pill. “Loneliness is widespread and contagious.”
Yes — contagious (more on that later). In fact, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness last year because more than 9 million British people suffer from deep feelings of isolation (which is more than the population of London).
Loneliness has been proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, in fact. And the United States isn’t better. Nearly half of Americans admit to feeling lonely some or most of the time, with the youngest generation, “Gen Z” (born after 1995) as the loneliest.
Never mind the sad, lonely widow Father McKenzie buries in the Beatles’ song — loneliness is afflicting people just when we are supposed to be the most social. You know, those vital years where we are supposed to explore our newly-minted adult identity through relationships, establish lifelong friends, and go to all the parties.
It’s a shocking contradiction when you consider how many “likes” the average 19-year-old has on Instagram. And it’s terrifying when you consider the life-long repercussions of being isolated at this fundamentally defining age.
Cacioppo knows that the loneliness pill isn’t supposed to “fix” the loneliness problem. Rather, she believes it could push people to get out of the loneliness cycle. You see, when we are lonely, we see and act differently, and thus self-perpetuate a cycle of feeling isolated and isolating others.
But what does that cycle look like exactly? Well, here are some signs that could indicate that you — or your neighbor across the street — might be experiencing loneliness.
You hang out with other lonely people
You’d think that a bunch of lonely people coming together might help alleviate all those lonely feels, but unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening. Feeling lonely isn’t the same thing as being alone. In fact, you’re 52 percent more likely to feel lonely if you’re routinely seeing someone else who is lonely.
The problem is that when you’re lonely, you’re more apt to act socially awkward and hostile — blowing things out of proportion and overreacting without self-awareness. This pushes others to act (and feel) just as hostile in return, perpetuating a cycle of isolation and contempt.
This kind of loneliness is a contagious experience that is both a consequence of being disconnected and a cause of being disconnected. The real antidote for loneliness is true, deep, meaningful connections.
You spend hours (multiple hours!) on social media
Social media isn’t all bad — but according to a recent study, grossly limiting your social media exposure will indeed decrease feelings of loneliness and depression. By randomly selecting undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania to limit Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to only 10 minutes per platform per day, researchers saw “significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group.”
The researchers recommend limiting social media to 30 minutes a day, but giving up social media is hard — after all, it’s been designed to keep the human brain constantly engaged. And it’s working, as the average person spends an average of two hours a day on it — and teens spend nine hours per day. (Fortunately, there are apps that can help you curb it, like Cold Turkey.)
You’re fixated on possessions
If you’d rather shop than call up a friend, and if you find the highlight of your day to be your Amazon package delivery, you might want to consider if your shopping habits are only trying to fill a void. Having strong attachments to inanimate objects is a sign of deep loneliness, according to researchers — they call it “material possession love,” and these attachments ultimately make you lonelier (because, spoiler alert, your new TV can’t love you back).
Unlike social media, however, materialism doesn’t necessarily cause loneliness as much as loneliness causes materialism. Being lonely can definitely throw you in a retail-therapy loop of disappointment and sadness, which pushes you to want more and more while giving you less and less. And all of that can rack up debt and deplete savings, already exacerbating the stress you may feel.
You’re always sick and tired
Our bodies are intrinsically linked to our minds — and researchers are only amassing more evidence of this. Loneliness affects our body at a systemic level, chronically raising our stress hormones, and even worsening the common cold. On top of this, loneliness can impact your sleep, which greatly affects health because restful sleep is a powerful immune booster.
So, if you’re always feeling like you’re carrying a perpetual cold, and it never seems like you can achieve a good night’s rest, consider looking at your social life — examine the status of your relationships. Do you feel like you have trusted friends you can confide in?
Remember, you’re not alone in your loneliness
Loneliness might be everywhere — but you have the power to take the initial steps to push yourself out of this isolated narrative. Start small, even if this means finding one person to meet regularly.
And if you need a reminder, consider this insight from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the bestselling novel that explores what it means to be truly alone in this world: “It turned out that if you saw the same person with some degree of regularity, then the conversation was immediately pleasant and comfortable — you could pick up where you left off, as it were, rather than having to start afresh each time.”