In “Millennials and the Loneliness Epidemic,” Forbes contributor Neil Howe reports that tens of millions suffer from this affliction—and not just Millennials—in such countries as the United States, France, and England. In Japan, Howe tells us, more than half a million people don’t leave their homes or interact with others for six months at a time. In one 2016 poll, 42 percent of British female Millennials claimed to be more terrified by the possibility of loneliness than by being diagnosed with cancer.
Explanations for this increased sense of isolation abound. In her excellent article “Alone: The Decline of the Family Has Unleashed an Epidemic of Loneliness,” Kay Hymowitz points to falling birth rates, childlessness, divorce, reduced dependence on families for care and welfare, and other changes in the family as contributing to this pandemic of feeling detached and unloved.
Other commentators blame this undesired solitude on the widespread use of social media and a consequent reduction in face-to-face interactions, the drastic slide in membership in certain service organizations and amateur sports teams, both of which once provided avenues for comradery and friendship, and the effects of a transitory society on long-term relationships.
Many of these articles also point out that feelings of isolation can lead to severe depression, a decline in cognitive ability, and even early mortality. WebMD rates the effects of loneliness as detrimental to our health as obesity and smoking. Here in America, the 21st century has seen a decline in American life expectancy, a phenomenon not witnessed since the flu epidemic a century ago. This drop in life expectancy is due not to disease, but is instead the result of increased deaths by suicide, alcoholism, and opioids, which some cite as pathologies of loneliness.
So what can we do? If we feel, as vast numbers of people apparently do, that we have few or no intimate contacts with other people, how can we set off in a different direction? Here are some ideas.
But first a personal note. Since the death of my wife 15 years ago, I have spent great swaths of time alone, hours and hours of necessary and desired isolation, in large part because of my work as a writer and teacher. (Teaching involved lesson planning and, in my case, evenings spent grading essays.)
I was often alone, but rarely lonely. The two are in no way equivalent. For me, however, that happy circumstance may change. My daughter with whom I live, her husband, and their seven children have moved to a city four hours away, leaving me to tend the house until it sells. I have no close friends here, and though I have other children and grandchildren, none are within immediate proximity. The advice I offer is therefore intended for me as well as for my readers.
Recognize Your Loneliness
The first step to conquering any problem is recognition. Try to identify reasons for your isolation. Is the cause something temporary, like a move to a new city? Or do you feel cut off from human contact because of some painful wound, a divorce or the loss of a loved one? How long have you experienced this sense of separation from others? Does your isolation often leave you lethargic or depressed? Ask such questions and seek the answers.
Use Technology as a Weapon Against Isolation
Though some blame social media as a cause for loneliness, our electronic devices can strengthen human ties. Instead of texting your daughter on the West Coast or that friend who moved to Florida, make the call. Talk to a human being instead of a machine. Seek out email relationships with family and friends. Look up organizations like Meetup online and discover whether there are groups near you with interests similar to your own. In Front Royal, Virginia, where I live, I found Meetup groups featuring a diversity of activities: hiking, beer tasting, book clubs, and more.
Get a Pet
Dogs and cats can’t replace human beings, and I’m not a pet guy myself, but I have a friend who, without his two cats, would be a basket case. One plus for dogs: they give you the opportunity to amble the streets of your neighborhood, giving you a bit of exercise, which reduces stress, and the opportunity to meet some of the neighbors.
Soup kitchens, schools, certain fire departments, and charitable organizations: all of these and more are usually in dire need of volunteers. One retiree I knew helped out with his local school’s reading program and founded a chess club. He felt engaged and useful, and the kids loved him. By helping others, you’ll be helping yourself.
Become Involved in Some Community Activity
Local theaters can often use help with play productions. Many libraries now offer lecture series, and film and book clubs for adults. Explore your community, and you might be surprised by what is available to you.
Take Classes at a Community College
Want to learn French cooking? Auto repair? The history of the Renaissance? Most community colleges offer an abundance of courses to young and old at affordable rates. Here you will not only add to your skill set, but you may also meet people who will become friends.
Seek Professional Help
If you’re alone and in a black hole of depression, seek professional counseling. Unfortunately, isolated people who suffer from severe depression are often incapable of recognizing the need for such assistance. If you know someone in this condition, talk to that person. If they respond positively, then encourage them to talk to a counselor.
Reach Out to Others
You live alone in an apartment and need some human companionship. So ask that young couple who just moved into the building over for cheese and wine. Invite that elderly widow who lives above you to supper. If you are alone and miserable, if you are looking for human contact, extend the hand of friendship. You may be pleasantly surprised who steps into your life.
This last piece of advice, at least for me, is the most important of the lot. The old maxim “To have a friend you must be a friend” applies. Friends rarely come floating ghostlike through our front doors. Often we must make the effort to approach others, to take the first step, and to try again with someone else if we are rebuffed.
After reading those last words, I’m making a promise to myself. If after a few weeks I am stricken by loneliness, I will invite some people I know from our local coffee shop—a barista and her friend, the manager who roasts the coffee, another writer and his wife who patronize the place—for supper or a glass of wine.
We’ll see how it goes.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.