In the corner of a local coffee shop, a young woman dressed in yoga pants and a fraying sweatshirt sits alone. An oversized stroller sits silently next to her. Every now and then, she looks up from her phone to scoot the wheels back and forth. One can assume there is a baby inside, but who really knows? After a silent hour, she slowly gets up, tosses her cup in the trash, and walks out. In those 60 minutes, in this very public place, surrounded by countless people, she has spoken to no one.
While she certainly isn’t alone, she may in fact be lonely.
For most of us, loneliness is a dirty word – a feeling we prefer to keep hidden in the corners of coffee shops, one we dare not share with anyone close to us. So we keep our feelings to ourselves, choosing instead to create a ‘highlights-reel’ life to showcase on our social media, and share with our ‘friends’ at book clubs and around the watercooler. To say we are lonely is to admit defeat – to be lonely, we think, means we are unworthy of connection.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In a recent Cigna research study, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling lonely (46 percent) or left out (47 percent) on the UCLA loneliness scale. Looking around your own local coffee shop, that means nearly every other person sipping their latte is lonely. No one is actually alone in this, and no one is unworthy of connectedness. With the pressures of our current world, the often-isolated nature of work, the rise of technology use, and the transient nature of many of our communities, more and more people are suffering silently.
And while many people assume loneliness is an affliction of the elderly, the same Cigna research study showcases the exact opposite: loneliness affects the young even more than the old.
The problem is, loneliness is expensive. Not just a ‘sad’ emotion, true loneliness taxes our bodies, and our minds, and our wallets. It shapes our present, and it molds our futures. In fact, research shows that loneliness impacts our bodies as negatively as smoking 15 cigarettes a day does. We all know the costs of smoking – lung disease, cardiovascular disease, cancers of the mouth and throat. Loneliness leaves many of the same costs in its wake – diabetes, heart disease, obesity, addiction, and countless other maladies can all be directly shaped by loneliness.
But the price of loneliness extends far beyond the individual.
Societally, we pay a massive price for our collective loneliness – in fact, the amount we spend on treating major depressive disorder, suicide, and addiction each year in the US is $960,000,000,000 – enough money to build homes to house every single homeless American, AND with money left over to fund the entire 2016 US education, housing, and defense budgets. The cost is simply too high to be sustainable.
Looking at the research that is just starting to come out, we as Americans pay an exorbitantly high price for our collective loneliness. We suffer in our homes, in our communities, and in our workplaces. We pay with our physical health, and we pay with our emotional connectedness. We pay with our health insurance premiums, we pay in our doctors’ offices, and we pay, in some ways, with the very length of our lives. With prices this high, can any of us really afford to be lonely?
Thankfully, all is not lost.
In fact, the best truth of the loneliness puzzle is that we can all actually take control of so much. If you are concerned about your own journey with loneliness, or think you may know someone else who is struggling with this, here are three things you can do today to help turn this tide:
1) Ask yourself a few questions
· When was the last time I felt surrounded by friends who know me deeply?
· Do I have a group of people in my life who really understand me? How often do I feel connected with these people?
· Am I satisfied with the depths of the friendships I do have?
2) Look honestly at your answers
If you had trouble answering of these questions, or are unhappy with the answers you came up with, now is the time to strip the power from that ‘dirty ‘word – and tell people that you are lonely. By opening up with those around you, you can begin to build authentic connections together.
3) Reach out to one person
Take action today. Call one old friend from childhood. Send a text message to a sibling you haven’t spoken to in months. Knock on your neighbor’s door just to say hi (as long as your neighbor is fairly normal!). Or just say hello to the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop – she might become your new best friend.
Reach out to one person and make a human connection – it’s a very easy way to start to make a very deep impact on your overall mental and physical health.