I often complain – rather gratuitously, I now realize – that I don't have a moment to myself. Responsibilities and relationships tug at my time, and hardly a day goes by without someone calling or knocking on my door unexpectedly.
How did I get so lucky?
I'm not being sarcastic either. Lately I've been nudged into recognizing that my complaints would count as someone else's blessings. There are plenty of people who would welcome the good fortune of a deep-bench support network.
Loneliness, we are being told again and again, has become an epidemic. Which strikes me as weird, and sad, and ironic. We live in a world where we can connect instantly with an acquaintance halfway across the world. An abundance of social media allows us to enjoy a grandchild's first steps in real time and chat with cousins in different cities, even when we're stuck at the office. Technology has enabled us to reach out and touch someone, at least virtually, whenever and wherever.
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And yet, loneliness is spreading as contagious as a flu bug. Earlier this year, a national survey by Cigna, the global health care company, found that almost half of all Americans reported feeling alone sometimes or always, and more than one in four Americans rarely or never felt they were understood. More alarming, two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships were not meaningful.
Surprisingly, it was the younger folk, not the elderly, who lamented their loneliness most, contradicting the long-held myth that getting old is a sure ticket to solitude. But what truly shook me to my core was not the demographics but the bleakness of the isolation. One in five Americans reported rarely or never feeling close to people, and 18 percent said they don't have someone to talk to; that's a number I've engraved in my mind so I don't take for granted the relief of venting to a friend.
The Cigna report shouldn't come as a shock, though. It actually echoes other surveys and mental health professionals' warnings. And if it makes us feel any better, or at least less bummed, the U.S. is not the only country where social isolation has become a national embarrassment. It's a problem in Japan, a worry in Russia and a concern in the United Kingdom. A few months back, the British government even named a minister for loneliness and launched a government-wide strategy to tackle the issue.
Wise public policy, this, since social isolation has been linked to serious health conditions, including depression and higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which can, in turn, lead to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, even dementia. In an analysis of various studies, researchers concluded that loneliness was equal to or greater than several other health risk factors, such as obesity and smoking. Even the World Health Organizations lists "social support networks" as a factor in good health.
We may think that the holidays prove worse for those who feel alone, but research says loneliness is an all-season companion, embracing people year-round regardless of the calendar. In fact, because we're conscious of sharing good cheer, we make it a point to include the new co-worker living far from family or the recently widowed neighbor left all alone in our festivities. But what about in February or April, when goodwill has been folded into the grind of daily life?
Maybe we should consider extending invitations not just for the big holiday meal but also long after the turkey has been carved and the Christmas ornaments stored. Maybe we must recognize that a text is not the same as a touch, and a Facebook post is no substitute for the presence of a loved one. And maybe, too, we should learn to cherish (instead of lament) family who asks for help, neighbors who drop in unexpectedly, and friends who interrupt your day to share a good joke.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at email@example.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)