“I am so lonely. If I died, no one would miss me and no one would care.”
I will never forget his words, as Ted, a 62 year old, single man, described his utter aloneness in the world. Ted had always relied on his job to meet his social needs. But, when forced into retirement unexpectedly, his isolation plummeted him into major depression.
Ted is no different than millions of Americans. Loneliness and social isolation is an epidemic in the US and it is lethal. Research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association reported that 42.6 million adults over the age of 45 in the US are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness leading to depression. The most recent US census shows that more than a quarter of the population lives alone. And more devastating is a new meta-analysis of 148 by Holt-Lunstand (2015) that found that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk for premature mortality and that this risk is a greater indicator of early death than health risks such as obesity and smoking.
How did we get here? Why are so many Americans suffering from social isolation and loneliness? Many factors contribute to our disconnectedness at all ages. First, families are not always geographically close and are more transient than in previous generations. Americans’ value system, based on independence, at times overrides values of sharing and connectivity. Moreover, Robert Putman, a sociologist and author of Bowling Alone reports that every 10 minutes of commute time results in 10% of decreased social ties. And, perhaps the most significant reason for our isolation is the internet. Observe people, either alone or with others and you will see their heads down looking at their cell phones. Our methods of communication are evolving to include less and less personal contact, being replaced by more impersonal methods including texting.
Humans are social animals. Our interconnectedness and our close, social relationships are the most significant component and indicator of happiness and wellbeing. As evidenced in the longest study of adult life beginning in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development (R.Waldinger, 2010), close relationships are what keep people happy throughout their lives. It is no surprise that social isolation and loneliness are the key indicators of depression and premature death.
Isolation and feelings of loneliness go hand in hand with Depression. A depressed client choosing to isolate must reverse that process of shutting down and begin to reestablish connections or form new ones if they are to improve their overall mood. The desire to feel better must be strong enough to motivate a depressed person to begin the process of connecting with others. Extroverts, energized by being social, must initiate contacts and plan social engagements as part of their weekly, wellness routines to fight depression. Whereas introverts, while needing alone time to recharge, can make the mistake of spending too much time alone and crossing the path from restorative time to creating unhealthy isolation.
Therapy can help a depressed and isolated person begin the process of connecting with others and improving mood, but the desire of wanting to feel better must be present. Childhood traumas, anxiety, abuse, adversity and attachment issues can make socializing more challenging due to difficulties in establishing trust. The following are small steps that people can take to build social connections and improve their overall well-being.
- Get Outside
Begin a routine of going for a walk around your neighborhood or mall or places where you will begin to see the same people. Practice getting out of your head and challenge yourself to notice the people around you.
- Start to say “Hi” on purpose
Challenge yourself to make eye contact and smile and say “hi” to people you pass by at work or while out. Look on purpose for people to greet while doing every day activities. Can you challenge yourself to say “hi” to 5 new people a day?
- Ask others a question or give them a compliment
At lonely times in my life, I used to wish that someone would just come up and talk to me. I think that many of us have had that wish. Why not be the one that does just that. Challenge yourself to give people sincere compliments, express appreciation and gratitude or begin conversations by asking someone an open-ended question. Not only are you improving your mood, you are also helping to improve the mood of others.
- Join a group
Challenge yourself to join a group or several groups. Groups make it easier to socially interact if you have been out of practice for a while. There are endless groups sponsored by cities, schools, churches, hospitals, libraries, senior centers, meetup.com, etc. A friend of mine’s son moved to a new city and joined a meetup.com group where they played board games. This group became his closest social support system in his new community. Joining a group may be one of the best things you can do to combat loneliness, isolation and depression, because not only are you in a social circle, you may also receive the psychological benefits of belonging.
- Make a date with a friend or family member
Remember, most of us want to be asked. Why not be the one that does the asking. It helps if you think of this as a challenge and then praise yourself for completing the challenge.
- Look for the good in others and intentionally express your appreciation and gratitude
Looking for the good in others and expressing appreciation and gratitude not only connects you to others but improves your mood as well as theirs.
Isolation, loneliness and depression are interconnected, prevalent and growing in the US with more than a quarter of our population living alone, and 42.6 million suffering from isolation. What we know is that isolation and loneliness are significant risks to premature mortality, a stronger indicator of early death than obesity. The alarms are now sounding that isolation can be deadly. But, there are solutions. Does it take effort? Yes. Can therapy help? Yes. What is necessary? A desire to want to feel better is all that is needed. From that desire, one can build from one conversation, one meeting, one friend at a time, to creating more connectivity in one’s life, thereby improving mood and overall wellness one step at a time.