America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic – and the isolation is compromising our health; yet because our culture esteems self-reliance and hates dependency, many of us are ashamed to admit we’re lonely and too proud to reach out – but friendships are essential to our own survival.
In America, society saying you’re lonely suggests that you’re weak or unable to attract friends. However, total self-reliance is a myth, and loneliness is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that we need to bring people into our lives.
A Hidden Problem
Because of the stigma of admitting to loneliness, many people don’t even know they’re lonely, much less what to do about it. What they really need to do is get more involved with the people around them. Of course, those who are too depressed to do so need to have their depression treated first.
Our seeming obsession with the most intimate details of strangers’ lives – as evidenced by the rise of “tell-all” TV talk shows and books – is another manifestation of our isolation. When you lack a circle of people you know well, gossiping about strangers is a way to fill the gap, but it isn’t very satisfying.
Health Risks of Loneliness
Evidence is growing that loneliness has serious health consequences. As discovered in a sociology study of over 37,000 people around the world, people who have no serious medical problems but who live alone and/or have few friends are twice as likely to die over a decade as people who had more social connections. Another study found that heart attack survivors who were married or had confidants had an 82% five-year survival rate. Those who had neither had a 50% five-year survival rate. Research shows that having a close circle of friends helps block stress-related declines in immune function.
It’s a sad new trend that fewer Americans are involved in church groups, political clubs, and charity organizations; socialize with their neighbors; or have significant, long-term relationships now than ever before. No matter how busy our lives, however, it’s essential that we make room for others. Whether married or single, we all need close friends other than our spouses. It’s unreasonable to expect one relationship to meet all your emotional needs. As a matter of fact, he/she may not always be in your life. Various friendships must be cultivated to sustain us.
To grow, friendships need a context – a shared endeavor that provides regular contact. You might try interest groups, volunteering to assist charities, joining a gym, etc. In addition, build your friendships by incorporating a sense of mutual dependency and obligation to each other – for example, looking out for one’s home, pet or children when they’re out of town; cultivating a shared garden; offering your help as much as possible; or even asking for someone’s help. When a person feels needed or like they have something to offer, they feel happier and more connected. The more you help others, the more you will, too.
Once we acknowledge our need for other people, we open the door to a life that is healthier, more connected and more satisfying.