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Reading This Could Save Your Life: My Personal Battle Against the Biggest Health Epidemic of Our Era

With statistics reporting that nearly half of US feels alone, health officials are calling it a loneliness epidemic. Here's why I'm speaking out—and why my mission behind Hey! VINA is needed more than ever before.

Image by knoppper/ Getty Images

Basic. Done. Salty. Extra. According to one of those trending lists floating around the internet, those are some of the biggest “buzzwords” of 2018. I’m all for new words to help define our lives, but there’s a word we’ve been hearing a lot more, but we’ve been afraid to really talk about… the L word. Loneliness.

I have to admit, I’ve even avoided the word over the years I’ve been building Hey! VINA, the #1 women’s friendship app. It feels shameful. It feels scary. It makes us think of some freak doesn’t have friends because they’re weird and unlikable, even Cardi B called it out when she reviewed the app. But that thought couldn’t be more wrong. It turns out that most of us are lonely these days.

Loneliness has been named the #1 health crisis in the United States. Just this May, a new nationwide survey of 20,000 adults from health insurer Cigna found that “most Americans are considered lonely.” Fifty-four percent of respondents said they sometimes or always feel that no one knows them very well. And two-fifths reported a lack of meaningful relationships and companionship; saying they are “isolated from others.” Most shocking of all? The survey revealed that Gen Z reports feeling lonelier than all older generations.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, called loneliness the #1 health epidemic, noting that “the reduction in life span [for loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact on life span of obesity.”

With loneliness being linked to a higher risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes (not to mention cancer and depression), public health leaders and other officials around the world have started to take note: In January, Britain appointed its first “minister for loneliness,” Tracey Crouch. Crouch’s job is to do exactly what you’d imagine: help confront this problem that Prime Minister Theresa May referred to as “the sad reality of modern life.” While Crouch is optimistic about her task ahead—”I could be the minister for happiness, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve,” she said in a recent interview. You and me both, Tracey, and we definitely have our work cut out for us.

Here’s a major and important fact though. Lonely is not an identity. It’s a feeling of being deprived of a basic human need, connecting with other humans. So, like feeling hungry thirsty, or tired, food, water, sleep, and human connection, are our basic needs as people. When you’re hungry, you eat something, when you’re thirsty, you drink water, when you’re tired, you take a nap, and when you’re lonely, you need to spend time with friends. Needing to meet new people and to connect deeply with them is no more shameful than having an empty fridge.

I’m 32 years old, and I’ve literally spent half of my lifetime thinking about how the internet (a.k.a. modern life) brings us together and isolates us at the same time. It’s alarming, how even though we can have everything we need at our fingertips, from going live on Instagram within seconds to ordering your favorite scented candle for 1-hour delivery, we are still missing something.

What’s missing is making it easy to find those real human connections and meet-up offline something that isn’t quite the same experience as chatting with people online. For me, I’ve met some truly amazing people thanks to online networks, from my first Friendster friend in 2002, MySpace friends in 2004, Facebook friends in 2005, Twitter friends in 2009, and hey to all my vinas out there that I’ve been since we started our concept in 2016, but the key has always been to take those new connections offline.

There aren’t a lot of apps that help you actually get offline and meet new people. In 2015, I got started building Hey! VINA, the friend-finding app for women that aims and succeeds in doing just that: making our social lives better… in turn making our whole lives better (and longer!).

I spend every single day, all day, working on building a network, a business, even a lifestyle, focused on GENUINELY connecting people and getting us to discover and connect with the community around us—OFFLINE.

For me, it’s a personal matter. My heart literally aches when I hear about another life lost to depression, suicide, and loneliness. When I was 10 years old, I lost my older sister to suicide, and it radically changed my life. I know too well that behind anyone’s profile pic, many are quietly suffering, quietly persevering. Nobody is good all of the time, and we all have our battles.

In an age of overwhelming and incessant bad news, isolation, and loneliness, we need to prioritize connecting, vulnerably, truthfully, and authentically share our real selves. We need to see and accept each other without judgement for just being human.

Maria Dolores Cimini, Ph.D., the director of University at Albany’s Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research, agrees. “To reduce suicide risk, one of the biggest factors that can help is to engage and connect with people and activities,” she tells VINA. “It could be certainly making new friends and connecting with new, interesting friends.”

Through her research, Dr. Cimini sees firsthand the positive effects that strong connections and friendships can have on a person’s personal happiness. “Having relationships by and large is something that’s very helpful,” she explains. “Relationships where people build each other up, support each other, connect with each other, and help build each other’s strengths.”

Being a human is really hard. The only way we can make it easier is to selflessly help each other. My hope and personal mission is that VINA can provide the tool and the network of awesome people you need to find and build your tribe. To find those meaningful friendships and connections that create real-life laughs (not the emoji face kind, the real laugh-so-hard-can’t-breathe-and-your-eyes-are-watering kind).

That’s why I’m so thrilled to be introducing new features on Hey! VINA today. First, you’ll find a Plans tab in the app, so you can make immediate offline plans with your match, or bring together all your vinas (and maybe mix in your other friends too!) and have something to do this weekend, or after work, or my personal favorite, before work breakfast or workout seshes. Also, we’re launching 15 more communities, where you can find other friends who are “Gamer Girls” or are going through some life struggles like fighting cancer, or like me, a newly divorced vina, who’s looking to meet other vinas who have been through that really difficult journey out of marriage. As a woman, these hobbies, lifestages, and experiences shape us, and our best lives mean we’re all in this together and stronger together—and it’s important we don’t forget that.

I hope when you pull up Hey! VINA, join communities that speak to your soul and start swiping right, you’re swiping right on more than just the hope for a new friendship. Swipe right on living life, swipe right on smiling more, swipe right on feeling heard, swipe right on surviving this adventure we call life. It’s all about growing, trying new things, and putting ourselves out there. Wanting to live better than yesterday. So, let’s swipe right on our futures.

You deserve it. We all do.

This post was first published on VINAZINE.

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