As social creatures, humans have an innate need for social connection. It’s as essential for survival as food, water, and shelter. Yet, in an increasingly digitally connected world, loneliness is on the rise. The U.S. Surgeon General officially declared it an epidemic due to its detrimental effects on both individuals and society as a whole. This issue is not confined to the U.S. alone; it’s a global problem with the British government having appointed a Minister of Loneliness back in 2018.
The Surgeon General’s report highlights the startling fact that loneliness, which affects about 50% of the U.S. adult population, is associated with severe health risks, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, and anxiety. It’s as harmful as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and surpasses the risks linked to obesity and physical inactivity. Moreover, the consequences of a society lacking social connections ripple through schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, affecting performance, productivity, and engagement.
Loneliness isn’t just a fleeting emotion; it’s a pervasive feeling of disconnection and isolation. Mental health professionals define loneliness as a subjective feeling around the gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have.
If you’ve experienced loneliness, you’re not alone; and if you haven’t, it’s crucial to equip yourself with preventive strategies. As the Surgeon General recommends, you can take the first step in combating loneliness starting in your own life. This involves focusing on your individual relationships and nurturing your sense of purpose and mattering. Let’s break down how you can mitigate loneliness and isolation, starting today.
- Build a Strong Sense of Purpose: Victor J. Strecher, a professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, is an expert on purpose. Strecher found that having a strong sense of purpose is proven to increase longevity, reduce cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, help get a better night’s sleep and more! All of these benefits are antidotes to the negative effects of loneliness. Big Retired Life’s launch post focused on purpose, and breaks down Stretcher’s step-by-step process to uncover your purpose. Having a purpose beyond yourself leads to feeling more connected to others and the world around you.
- Develop a Sense of Mattering: While tricky to define and often confused with belonging, self-esteem and social connection; mattering revolves around feeling and adding value. Isaac Prilleltensky, a professor at the University of Miami, stated in the New York Times that to matter means “people must feel valued — heard, appreciated and cared for — and they must feel like they add value in ways that make them feel capable, important and trusted.” Ask yourself how you are adding value to yourself, your relationships, your community, and any work (paid or unpaid) you’re engaged in. Try to equally balance the value you are adding to each of these areas.
- Adding Value to Yourself: Prioritizing self-mattering begins with self-perception and self-worth. If you’re feeling lonely or depressed, it’s easy to slip into bad habits, analogous to “quiet quitting” in life. Avoiding habits like excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, sedentary behavior, unrestricted screen time and social media use can not only reduce loneliness but also promote longevity. Here’s Big Retired Life’s post on prioritizing healthy habits that ultimately promote self-mattering. Remember: you are the most important person in your life; treat yourself that way.
- Foster Your Relationships: Paying close attention to your relationships is crucial to being proactive in tackling or overcoming loneliness. Express your appreciation for the people in your life and ask open-ended questions to build deeper connections. Doing this makes you feel both valued and that you are adding value to your relationships. Read Cultivate Your Social Power for tips on building close relations and social connections.
Loneliness is a challenge that affects everyone. By actively working on developing a greater sense of purpose, mattering, and nurturing meaningful relationships, you can take action against loneliness not only in your own life but also contribute to a more connected and compassionate world.
Throughout this “Going It Alone” section of this blog, we will share learnings from others navigating retirement alone, so that you don’t have to do it all alone.