Many years ago I treated a patient who was suffering from a near fatal case of loneliness.
No, I am not exaggerating for this person would later confess that she had come to me in a last-ditch attempt to resolve her problems while promising herself that if I couldn’t help she would hang herself. She was a 20-something attractive and very modestly dressed woman who did indeed look very despondent with the psychomotor retardation and furrowed brow characteristics of clinical depression. When I asked her why she was there to see me, she hung her head, stared at the floor, and tearfully responded that she had been shunned.
She went on to tell of how her infraction of the church’s rules (one that most of us would consider a minor infraction) had resulted in her being officially designated as one with whom the entire church should have no contact whatsoever. You may be thinking: “Big deal go find another church.” But her story was more complicated. She had grown up attending this church. It was the center of not only her spiritual, but also her social and family life. Since the church doctrine insisted that only members of their church were true Christians, the members were warned about the dangers of consorting with people outside the church, apparently convinced that sin was contagious. Thus, when alienated from the congregation, which to make matters worse, included her entire family, she found herself totally alone.
Such stories are not new as evidenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tear-jerker, THE SCARLET LETTER, but give witness to the importance of relationships and the pain of loneliness. Many religions have used banishment of varying degrees of severity to punish wayward members. The Catholic Church’s policy of excommunication appears to be less stringent and is viewed by the church as a means to save souls whereby one can return to the fold and regain salvation by repenting. Such tools are powerful and their use can have long lasting effects. For example, I recently discovered that my Great, Great, Great Grandfather was shunned and ejected from the Quaker church. It occurred to me that if he had toed the line, I might be a Quaker.
AND YOU THOUGHT SMOKING WAS BAD
Solitary confinement has long been used as a means to enhance the discomfort of imprisonment, and is agreed by many to be a form of torture. In a previous blog, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? I contended that our need for relationships is encoded in our DNA, having evolved long ago as a major contributor to the survival of our species. If one were to accept that premise, it would be logical to assume that loneliness could be a major problem for us. Indeed, according to Vivek Murthy, M.D., the former Surgeon General of the U.S., loneliness has become “a growing public health crisis.” He has said that loneliness is a more effective agent in reducing longevity than obesity, and that its toxic effects are worse than smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Recent research into the prevalence and effects of loneliness tends to confirm Murthy’s assessment. Last year Cigna released a report on a study of 20,000 people age 18 and over as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale.
Nearly half reported loneliness as a problem, but even more concerning was that 27% felt no one understood them, and 43% admitted they felt their relationships were not meaningful. One in five felt they rarely or never felt close to others or that there was anyone they could talk to. It was also noted that Generation Z (those born after 1996) were the loneliest of all the generations measured.
There have been a number of studies which confirm the effects of loneliness on physical and mental health. It is not surprising that it could result in affective disorders such as depression, and may help explain the increase incidence of suicide as mentioned in my previous blog, but there is also evidence that loneliness can cause or aggravate innumerable maladies including: hypertension, coronary artery disease, dementia, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, impairment of immune systems, and even some malignancies to name a few.
A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine sponsored by the National Institute of Health followed 1604 people over the age of 60 (average age 70) for 6 years and measured their physical decline and mortality rate. Their stark conclusion was: “Among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death.” Need I say more about our need to engage with our fellow man?
WE ARE NOT THE ONLY LONELY
It turns out that we are not the only nation where loneliness has become a problem, both from a public health and productivity perspective. Great Britain’s parliament has recently appointed a commissioner to investigate remedies for what has been called a silent epidemic after a study showed that 20% of Brits reported they were lonely most or all of the time. It appears there are similar studies in progress in other European countries. It would be helpful to know if loneliness is a worldwide problem or peculiar to our culture.
NOTHING ELSE TO DO
If one accepts the premise that loneliness is a significant problem, the question arises as to how did we get this way and what can we do about it. Prior to the industrial revolution, multi-generational families provided a sense of belonging. Relatives galore, including parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles usually lived in close proximity. With the switch from an agrarian to an industrial society, there had been a migration to cities where houses were built close together, which resulted in the development of neighborhoods usually composed of people with common interests. There was the inevitable clustering of children who interacted with only minimal adult supervision, and stay-at-home moms who could relate to each other in a very personal way. Neighbors were evaluated based on certain standards including friendliness and mutual respect. The lack of air conditioning and television made front porches very popular especially on hot evenings, and provided an opportunity for informal socializing. The only taboo subjects were sex, religion, and politics.
BETTER THINGS TO DO?
Soon after World War II ended, front porches began to disappear from neighborhoods, and there was a wild rush to the suburbs where large green lawns were treasured and families had fewer opportunities to be “neighborly.” On hot summer nights, it became more comfortable to be inside the house (with air conditioning) than outside. There were also new-found entertainment devices available – first radio, then TV, movies in the VCR and then DVD Player, video games, and then the internet which gave us social media and streaming. One could go for months or longer without ever having face-to- face contact with one’s neighbors. There was no longer danger of an errant foul tip sending a baseball through someone’s window. Privacy became important, and it was no longer considered a snub to build a fence between houses. There were no kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks, as a matter of fact, there often were no sidewalks in these new neighborhoods.
Competing Schedules and Activities
As more mothers joined the workforce and children were exposed to more structured extra-curricular activities, long-held family traditions changed. There was concern about the “latch key children” so named because they would come home to an empty house. The evening meal, often the only time in which the entire family came together, was often disrupted due to conflicting schedules. This led to the so-called crock pot families where the family meal was available to all who passed by…making it easy to just grab a bite and be on your way without any hassle (or conversation).
Forced Socialization in the Pew
Another effective defense against loneliness was the weekly church service. Traditionally, religious institutions encouraged socializing (and in some cases, demanded it). However, attendance at religious institutions has declined in recent years (one study says church membership in the U.S. has declined from 70% in 1999 to 50% in 2018).
WHY SO MUCH LONELINESS?
It is ironic that in this digital age when we have vastly improved modes of communication, that we would identify loneliness as a problem. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, insists that he saw his invention as a tool by which relationships could be fostered throughout the world and help dispel feelings of loneliness and dissention, but it appears that it has done more to promote divisiveness and distrust.
With the invention of the telephone we gave up non-verbal cues in our conversations, and the trade-off for its convenience seemed like a good deal. Now kids have largely given up talking on their cell phones in favor of texting. Voices from the internet, news media and politicians all conspire to promote divisiveness and paranoia to the point that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation about many of the issues of the day.
Today people are marrying later and living longer. As reflected in the census figures of 2012, 32 million or 27% of Americans lived alone which was up from 17% in 1970. As you might expect, widowhood is likely responsible for many single occupant households, and in another study it was found that 47% of women over the age of 75 lived alone. With aging, comes the inevitable debilities and limitations. The National Institute on Aging reports that nearly half of all people over the age of 75 have hearing loss, which can be a major impediment to any meaningful social interaction resulting in withdrawal from friends and family.
It has been said that Americans are losing faith in our institutions, and our political leanings are often shaped by who we hate rather than who we like. Political discourse has hit a new low. Muck raking is no longer good enough, and has been replaced by personal insults a la grade school rants. Respect for contrary opinions has now gone out of fashion. Divide and conquer is the new strategy, and a tactic that seems to have even been adopted by the news media (Matt Taibbi has written an entire book about it, called “Hate Inc.”). We lack heroes. We frequently hear the term “disenfranchised” these days, a synonym for “left out” and to be an outsider is lonely for any herd critter.
ALL IS NOT LOST (stay with me…a little break from “downer” time)
There is some evidence that there may be some efforts underway to deal with the loneliness issue. I was pleased to see a recent article in Psychiatric News suggesting that psychiatrists are focusing more on loneliness as an underlying psychiatric problem (don’t know why it took so long to figure that out). A former president of the American Psychiatric Association has suggested that assessment for loneliness be part of any evaluation or perhaps become a diagnostic category in the DSM 5 (the shrink bible). There is also a growing awareness of a worldwide suicide epidemic which most would agree loneliness all too often plays a part. Lonely lifestyles also frequently seem to be common with mass murderers.
LONELINESS VS. BEING ALONE
Proximity to other people is not necessarily a solution for loneliness, for it is not unusual to feel lonely in the midst of a crowd. Obviously, some type of emotional engagement is necessary to dispel lonely feelings. Ordinary discourse involves much more than words. Unfortunately, in our digital world many of the nuances of communication are lost. Not only are the tone, rhythm, volume, and timbre involved, but there are multiple non-verbal cues which can modify or even completely change a communication. As a matter of fact, some very significant interactions may occur without any words spoken. In that vein a text hardly measures up to a face to face encounter as a means to communicate feelings.
Emotional tone is less relevant, for even an argument can dispel lonely feelings.
Although, until recently, there have been few attempts to measure the extent of loneliness, there is definitely a consensus among sociologists and mental health professionals that there has been a definite increase. Employers have taken note of recent research which has shown that employees are more productive when they are encouraged to interact with each other. As a consequence, in many cases the traditional office cubical arrangement has been scrapped in favor of a more open environment, teamwork is encouraged, and brief chats at the water fountain are less likely to result in a dirty look from the boss. Since most workers spend nearly half of their waking hours in the workplace such changes could be very beneficial for large segments of society.
The needs for engagement with other humans has long been addressed by the formation of millions of organizations that bring groups of people together with myriad goals, but which also provide an opportunity to relate to others. The sense of belonging to a group is a powerful antidote to loneliness. Young people who feel neglected or alienated are more likely to join street gangs (easier to radicalize for terrorism and/or recruit for “religious” cults*). Athletic events and concerts attract millions, most of whom “show their colors” and cheer as one. One of my all-time favorite TV shows was Cheers which identified the locus of the show as the place “where everybody knows your name.” Organizations of all kinds including sports teams, military, and political groups or for that matter any group of people with a common goal make use of the need to belong which at the end of the day is an antidote to loneliness.
THEY NEED EACH OTHER
AARP sponsors a very interesting and apparently successful program called “Experience Corps” in which volunteer over 50 are enrolled in a program where they are trained to help children develop literacy skills. They spend 6 to 15 hours per week working with K-3 students with spectacular results including as much as 60% improvement in reading skills, fewer behavior problems, improved attendance, and increased graduation rates The AARP foundation at last report had 2,000 volunteers throughout the country serving over 30,000 students. However; it appears the volunteers may be benefiting more than the kids from the program. A University of Michigan study reported a statistical decrease in depressive symptoms and functional limitations among the volunteers after two years involvement in the Experience Corps. There may also be a secondary benefit in that some kids may learn to venerate rather than denigrate us old folks. (Score 1 for the Old Farts!)
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
None of this should be interpreted as an attempt to diminish the value of solitude. Certainly, this need to relate can be overdone, and in some cases become pathological. In many cases of marital therapy, for example, too much togetherness can be identified as the problem. In testimony before Congress, Prof. Julianne Holt-Lunstad defined loneliness as ” the perceived discrepancy between one’s desired level of social connection and their actual level of social connection.” She explained that some people who are socially isolated don’t necessarily feel lonely, and some people who are lonely are surrounded by people who make them feel more alienated.
One’s work may require so much contact with others that it can become oppressive, and some personalities may cause anal pain of the worst kind! Nevertheless; before you make plans to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island or join an order of non-verbal monks, be careful what you wish for. Time-alone can be refreshing, relaxing and creative, but as with most things in life, it can be overdone. Alone can be good, but lonely can be very bad. In this time in which we are all mutually dependent, it has become even more necessary to have relationships than we did in those days when we needed help to bring down a woolly mammoth. It is difficult nowadays to survive in this world as a loner. We face enormous problems including an increased global population, competition for resources, and degradation of our environment. It is once again time for us to hang together or hang separately.
WHAT MAKES THEM TICK?
The ability of the human race to relate to each other has allowed us to survive and to thrive. We need to exercise that talent now more than ever. As I finished writing this, once again two hate-filled young people described as loners committed horrible atrocities within hours of each other. It goes without saying that we need to take logical steps to limit access to those instruments designed to kill people, but the prevalence of these kinds of behaviors also require us to learn more about the milieu in which they occur. For example: are there genetic influences involved, does our society in some way generate such hatred, are certain personalities more easily recruited to violent organizations, is shyness a precursor, and finally does the hatred cause the loneliness or vice versa? We need to understand more about how these people end up the way they are if we are to have any success at solving the problem.