Every week at the mental health clinic I lead, I hear people say things like this:
“I know lots of people, but I don’t feel truly connected to anyone.”
“I wish I felt close to someone—just one person—but I don’t.”
“To be honest, I feel lonely most of the time.”
Among the many crises currently facing our society, here’s one that’s often ignored but shouldn’t be: Millions of people in our country feel chronically lonely, isolated, and disconnected from others. And that lack of connection with others contributes significantly to the mental and physical health problems on display in countless harmful ways.
Because close relationships are so vital to our healthy functioning, concerned experts have been sounding the alarm that chronic loneliness has reached epidemic levels in modern society. A 2020 large-scale report by health service company Cigna shows that America’s loneliness epidemic is getting worse, with 3 in 5 adults (61 percent) reporting that they’re lonely, a 7 percent increase from 2018. The study also found that 1 in 4 Americans “rarely” or “never” feel that there are people who understand them.
Another study published in February 2021 by Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project reported that 36 percent of respondents reported feeling serious loneliness “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.” In this report, researchers point out the broad reach of isolation:
“Among our survey respondents, there were no significant differences in rates of loneliness based on race or ethnicity, gender, level of education, income, religion, or urbanicity. Large numbers of survey respondents in both political parties suffer loneliness, although Democratic respondents were more likely to report loneliness (40 percent) than Republicans (29 percent).”
What Loneliness Is and Isn’t
Loneliness doesn’t merely mean the lack of friends. People with many friends can still feel socially detached, just as those with few friends may rarely or never feel a sense of separation.
Likewise, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely, nor is it always something negative. Some people, particularly introverts, enjoy time by themselves and are perfectly comfortable with solitude. Even extroverts desire “me time” to reflect and recharge.
Loneliness is different. When we’re lonely, we feel cut off or alienated from other people and have no one we can genuinely communicate with. Even when we’re surrounded by others, we can still feel alone if we don’t have an emotional connection with them.
We all need people we can share our innermost thoughts and feelings with: people who will laugh with us during joyful times and cry with us during painful times. People we can experience the unfolding of daily life with—through all the ups and downs.
The High Cost of Loneliness
Even before COVID-19-related social disruptions, researchers widely viewed loneliness and isolation as an epidemic with serious health implications. Although measuring feelings can be subjective, tracking the effects of those emotions isn’t. Much research supports the conclusion that loneliness contributes to health risks such as:
- Depression and anxiety
- Substance abuse disorders
- Suicidal thoughts
- Cognitive decline
- Cardiovascular problems
- Sleep disruption
- Premature mortality
The Harvard report echoes this association, citing evidence to support the stunning claim that “lacking social connection carries the same, if not greater, health risks as heavy smoking, drinking, and obesity.”
Being connected to others greatly improves our health—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that people who have satisfying relationships are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.
Emma Seppala, science director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, wrote: “Studies show [people with strong connections to others] also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical wellbeing.”
Isolation and loneliness are serious problems with real and often devastating consequences, as in the case of increased suicide risk. The ramifications deeply affect everyone in our society in one way or another and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
7 Steps Toward Connection
If all of this bad news is daunting, here’s the good news: This is a problem with an attainable solution, an ailment with an achievable cure. There are actionable steps you can take to overcome loneliness and experience the power of connection.
Perhaps you, like so many people, have no one in your life that you can call a close, intimate friend. Or maybe you have a number of shallow relationships you want to deepen into something more authentic. Whatever your situation, let’s look at ideas for initiating new relationships or deepening existing ones:
Push yourself forward. Every meaningful relationship begins with one person taking initiative and taking risks. This means choosing courage over caution. When it comes to deepening relationships, we all have reasons for hesitating. Perhaps you’ve been burned before and have learned to shy away from risk. Maybe you’re immobilized by a thousand scary what-ifs. Remember this: Every close friendship begins with one person simply saying hello to a neighbor or inviting a coworker to meet for coffee.
Put yourself in the company of a variety of people. It could be a church group, community project, book club, or exercise class. But choose something to join, and do it now. There’s a saying that you can’t get to second base with one foot on first. It’s the same challenge you face in drawing closer to others. You can’t learn to swim by reading a book about swimming, and you’ll never achieve closeness with others unless you choose to join in.
Learn the art of authenticity. Connection happens when two people are real and transparent with each other. This means being who you truly are, resisting the impulse to play games or put on a false persona to impress someone. Sharing vulnerable thoughts and feelings should happen slowly as trust is developed. Put another way, intimate aspects of our lives should be ladled out judiciously rather than dumped out hastily.
When you’re with another person, be present. We’re bombarded by distractions almost constantly, diverting our attention from the people we’re with. Strive to be fully present in your conversations and relationships. Be an active listener, make eye contact, and give people your full attention. Being fully present is an essential way to ensure connection in any situation.
Show respect at all times. Mutual respect is at the core of close relationships. It confers dignity, honor, and high worth to the recipient. Part of showing respect means honoring differences. People’s view of the world and how to live in it may not be the same as yours due to their life experience, temperament, personality, upbringing, and access to education. When you accept, you don’t judge. When you stop judging, people will respond to you and connect with you.
Help other people feel good about themselves. Psychologists have identified a secret to close relationships: Our feelings for another person are strongly influenced by how that individual makes us feel about ourselves. Some may say this principle sounds self-centered and egocentric, but it’s a basic fact of human nature and can be a powerful positive force. People who feel the closest connection are the ones who support, praise, and strengthen each other.
Be supportive of the other person’s goals and dreams. Everyone has aspirations they would like to see come to fruition. It might be a health-related goal such as losing weight or a career goal such as starting a business. It could be a family goal related to kids or parents or even a long-held dream of writing a book, visiting a foreign land, or running a marathon. By lending a listening ear, offering encouragement, brainstorming together, or helping to conduct research, you communicate an important message: “Your dreams and ambitions are important to me, just as they are to you.”