Updated: May 26
I know you're tired of hearing about COVID-19, but let's face the facts: the pandemic has caused most of us to feel lonely.
But even before the pandemic, we have been facing what experts are calling the Loneliness Epidemic: "It cuts across generations and reaches around the world."
No matter what age or gender you are, you aren't immune to loneliness—especially during a pandemic.
As we head into post-pandemic life, it's more important than ever to focus on making and maintaining genuine connections.
Why do connections matter?
We all know smoking cigarettes is harmful to our health. But did you know that loneliness has similar health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes per day? The lack of connections has life-threatening consequences, rivaling tobacco smoking and obesity.
Loneliness can kill you.
John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist, said, "Loneliness is an aversive signal, much like hunger, thirst, or pain."
According to a study published in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, poor social relationships are associated with a 29% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke. The risk of premature death due to loneliness rivals those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Gear up—the science keeps getting worse. Social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia. Loneliness is also linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Social isolation among heart-failure patients is associated with a 4 times increased risk of death.
Who is at an increased risk of loneliness?
Certain populations are more likely to experience loneliness. For example, the elderly, which is who most scientists are concerned about. Many seniors live alone, and they may also have physical impairments. Retirement also increases the risk of social isolation.
But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention also identifies two more at-risk populations: immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ+. Immigrants face issues such as language barriers, differences in community and family dynamics, and new relationships that lack depth or history. People in the LGBTQ+ community are more lonely because they face stigma, discrimination, and barriers to care.
Loneliness is also more likely to affect anyone who lives alone and is unmarried. Lonely people often have no participation in social groups, fewer friends, or strained relationships.
Anyone who is lonely faces the risk of premature mortality. But the good news is: friendships reduce the risk of mortality or developing diseases, and can also speed recovery in those who fall ill.
How can we ward off loneliness?
The whole point of this discussion is not to encourage you to find a roommate or propose to the first person who shows interest in you. To ward off loneliness, we need meaningful connections.
It's completely possible to feel lonely when you're in a crowded room. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher who focuses on neuroscience, said, “We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.” But not every person or connection makes us feel like we belong.
So what can we do to avoid feeling lonely?
1. The obvious: do more things with people.
Okay, this point is obvious, I know. But I don't necessarily mean text your "friend" who always talks about herself and never asks you about YOU.
What I mean is: put yourself out of your comfort zone! Join adult sports or exercise groups! Go to religious services! If you feel like you don't have anyone to turn to, maybe it's because you haven't tried to go to new places in a while. There are people out there waiting to love you. You just haven't met them yet!
And of course, if you feel uncomfortable with COVID-19, call and make sure where you're going is following the proper precautions. But even just seeing people in person and feeling their energy can help you feel less lonely.
Your task: write down all your favorite things to do. Is it walking? Great! Then search around for some walking groups, or ask that friend that you haven't caught up with in a long time to walk with you every Wednesday. It's a simple as that!
2. When you're in public, talk to strangers—don't look at your phone.
Did you know that social media make us feel more lonely? There's evidence that heavy social media use increases our feelings of loneliness.
Of course, with the pandemic, most of us used social media more than ever to stay connected. If I had known then what I know now about excessive social media use and loneliness, I would've put more effort into finding new hobbies to occupy my time. Maybe the people baking endless loaves of bread weren't so crazy after all!
That's what I suggest you do: find more hobbies! Try new things! For example, I recently got into candle-making. It's messy, but fun, and simpler than I bet you're thinking!
Whether you like crafts, baking, writing—deep dive into it, without worrying about if you'll be good at it. The whole point is that you enjoy it so much, you don't even want to look at your phone. You never have to share your final product with anyone!
And when you're in public? Don't look at your phone to make the situation less awkward! I know we all do it. But take a risk and strike up a conversation with the cashier. I don't even care if you're just making small talk about the weather! You never know where your conversations will lead you. Get off UberEats, go into the store, and chat with strangers. I swear, you'll feel better.
3. If you go online, be more active.
First, I want to clarify that excessive social media is the problem—not bite-sized portions. By all means, continue using social media. Just make an effort to avoid getting sucked into scrolling for hours on end.
Also, I'm not saying avoid going online altogether! It's clear that technology's presence in our life is only growing to be more integral and important. But instead of passively absorbing media, try being active!
Whether that's creating social media content about something you're passionate about (think infographics on Canva), or chatting with your friend on Zoom who lives across the world, just make sure you're being active.
You could even just share positive quotes on your social media. That's been one of my favorite ways to interact on social media lately. Anything that touches my soul positively, I share on my Instagram story.
By "be more active," I also mean be careful about what content you consume. TikTok is really hard, because the For You Page is unpredictable. I found scrolling too much on there has negatively impacted my mindset. If you're going to scroll on TikTok, use the "Not interested" button freely.
On other social media platforms, you have more control. Unfollow. Mute your friends. Control what content you consume so that it has a positive influence—not a negative one. Take the control back.
4. Volunteer in your community.
Earlier, I mentioned that retirement increases your risk of loneliness. Due to the pandemic, many people are out of a job, which also leaves them at risk for social isolation. Whether you're retired, or in the midst of a challenging job search, get out into your community and volunteer. Even if it's only an hour on Sunday.
Think about your favorite activities, and find volunteer opportunities based on those activities! For example, I love children and animals. I've always loved volunteering at the local Boys and Girls Club. Another option for me might be an animal shelter.
No matter what your passion is, there is bound to be a volunteer opportunity for you! Volunteering is beneficial for increasing your social and relationship skills, which will help you actively ward off loneliness. Volunteering also helps you make new friends and contacts, and it increases your self-confidence, combats depression, and helps you stay physically healthy.
Volunteering may be the perfect way for you to feel less lonely.
Even if you're in the middle of a challenging job search, volunteering also provides career benefits. It can help you advance your career, teach you valuable job skills, and provide career experience. Don't hesitate to take a break from your job searching and volunteer!
Form connections for your well-being and health.
Today, you learned how connections are essential for your overall well-being.
The relationship between social interactions and health is why at Craig Ranch Fitness + Spa, we are constantly encouraging social connections. We plan endless events and create groups (shout out to our Running Club) to help our community form positive connections.
We hope you follow our tips to decrease your feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Above all, stay healthy and well!