Charles Thomas: Our Crisis of Loneliness

It seems like everyone is worried about loneliness lately. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, is concerned, as is the UK government. The Brits are so worried that they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness. I’m worried about it too because of what I’ve heard my clients— especially my male clients— tell me about the psychological toll that loneliness and isolation has on them. 

According to a report that Murthy issued earlier this year, even before the COVID pandemic more than half of all Americans said that they struggled with loneliness. In today’s post-COVID world, that number is probably even higher. While it’s easy to dismiss this problem as insignificant, loneliness is serious business. Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and has been linked to a higher risk for strokes, heart disease and dementia.

I wasn’t aware of Murthy’s report until a friend whose wife died last year brought it to my attention. But when I reviewed the data we have on loneliness, I learned a number of things, including that older Americans are at increased risk for loneliness because our social networks tend to shrink with age. I also learned that researchers are concerned about a number of developing demographic trends that may lead the current generation of Americans to become the loneliest ever.

The trends that worry researchers are numerous. Fewer Americans are marrying and even when they do, they tend to have fewer children. Growing numbers of Americans are choosing not to have children at all. In addition to this, the average size of our social networks are also in decline as more people move away from their families and do less and less of the sorts of things that previous generations did to connect with others.

When I was growing up, many of my friends’ parents were in bowling leagues that met at least once a week. I remember seeing them going off to bowl, have a few beers and hang out with their friends. But in the past two decades, bowling leagues have declined so much that a best selling book was written that explored how the decline of this kind of recreation was changing us.

The solution to the crisis of loneliness couldn’t be more obvious, but just because a solution is obvious doesn’t mean implementing it is. Anyone who has ever struggled with their weight knows that getting started is simple—eat less and exercise more—but putting that into consistent practice is much easier said than done.

We can’t force people to join bowling leagues any more than we can force them to have children or get married. As is always the case, the solution to today’s problems cannot be solved with yesterday’s solutions.

But there are ways to ease the pain of being alone, and it all starts with taking a moment to accept how we’re really feeling. 

When we experience a negative emotion, it’s natural to want to run away from it. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to sit with that feeling and let it teach us something about how we really feel and about our deepest yearnings. If we find yourself lonely, we can ask ourselves these questions: What exactly about being alone is hard? If I could wave a magic wand and fill my world with the connections that I’m missing, what kind of relationships would I populate my life with? Did I ever have these kinds of connections before? If so, how did I get them?

Buddhism teaches that death, sickness, and even loneliness can be great teachers. If we think of loneliness as a wise grandparent or a learned professor, it can help us to listen to what these emotions have to teach us. Spending time listening to loneliness can be a gift, and sitting with it is how we begin our lessons.

But listening isn’t enough. Once we understand what we are feeling and why, it’s time to take action. 

Action can take many forms, all with the same mission: to form greater community in our lives. We probably all know someone who is always the person to organize get-togethers and bring people together. These people are the social magnets of our lives and leaders of community formation. One of the social magnets in my life is named Janet Stocker. Janet has introduced me to people who have become my dear friends whom I never would have met without her. Social magnets like Janet greatly enrich the quality of our lives but not all of us are lucky enough to know one.

But as Janet can tell you, she doesn’t have a super power that others lack. Anyone can choose to be the person who invites people over to their house to watch the big game or for dinner. Anyone can start a walking group or organize a Secret Santa at work. It does not require a degree or a certification. It just takes a willingness to take a risk and extend the hand of friendship.

Finally, while it has certainly gone out of style, we should not underestimate the power of volunteering to enrich our lives in profound ways. I’m not sure if there is a better way to make like-minded friends than when you give your time to a cause that you believe in. Single people should not underestimate the benefits that volunteering could have on their dating life as well.

While we are currently battling a crisis of loneliness in this country, we are not in this alone. More than half of us are feeling lonely at any given moment. Maybe that’s a good fact to keep in mind the next time someone with an adorable dog walks by your house when you’re out shoveling the snow. Maybe it’s worth the risk to introduce yourself to the dog and their person. 

Chances are better than fifty-fifty that they’ll be glad to have met you.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.