Divided We Fall Ill

People are alone to a degree never seen before in human history—and it's stealing our joy and health. Fortunately the cure is simple.
Divided We Fall Ill
(Illustration from Shutterstock / Designed by The Epoch Times)
Matthew Little
Health Viewpoints
The epidemic of loneliness is a mass killer comparable to smoking. There is only one cure—people.

Traditional cultures were built in part on an understanding of interdependence. They recognized the plain and obvious truth: We need each other.

Fewer people believe that today. We have lost the sense that we depend on each other for our safety and prosperity. Maybe that’s why we are so lonely.

Researchers have been telling us for decades that human connection is essential to our health.

Social connection changes us in profound ways. It is linked with better cognitive health as we age, healthier blood pressure, and a longer life. It also makes us kinder.
Loneliness, meanwhile, leaves us anxious and depressed. It also changes our biochemistry, contributing to inflammation and reduced immunity. It is also linked to a higher risk of stroke, obesity, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

As odd as it may seem, part of the reason we’re lonelier is likely the fact that we live closer together. The shift to urban living has left us alienated from each other.

In small towns, people aren’t a problem, they’re a pleasure. And you partake in that pleasure with pleasantries. Social scientists call these passing social interactions we have with strangers or passing acquaintances “weak social ties.”

“We get a little hit of happiness when we connect with those folks, and it helps us to feel part of our community,” writes Jill Suttie, with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

I’ve lived in over 20 towns and cities, from places with a few hundred people to the crushing metropolis of New York and can affirm what everyone already knows: The bigger the city, the tenser people.

Researchers found people in cities typically suffer 20 percent higher rates of depression, 21 percent higher rates of generalized anxiety disorder, and 77 percent higher rates of psychosis, a severe psychiatric disorder.

There are several likely contributors to that, from poorer air quality to a lack of green spaces, but that basic tension between people is certainly a key factor.

In the city of Whitehorse, in Canada’s northern Yukon territory, winter is long and the sun doesn’t even rise on the longest night of the year, but the people are warmer and more connected than anywhere I’ve lived. I suspect the long and harsh winter reminds them of their need for each other—and the joys that come from that interdependence.

Researchers have even documented this phenomenon, finding that people who live in tight neighborhoods enjoy significant mental health benefits, including lower rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

So if loneliness brings us mental illness and disease, and social connection brings us longevity and happiness, it’s worth reflecting on our reluctance to sustain our face-to-face connections.

Don’t let television replace your time with friends and social media hijack your relationships. Even your weekly smile exchange with the store clerk is meaningful. And I can tell you from personal experience, making long-term sustained efforts to build ties with the people who live around you has a profound effect on your world. You move from a place where everyone is a stranger and potential threat, to a place where you are surrounded by friends that are glad to have you around.

Matthew Little is a senior editor with Epoch Health.