Amid the flurry of research on happiness these days, it's easy to lose sight of another side of adulthood: Many of us all suffer from loneliness.
As a recent article in The Atlantic noted, various studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history. One leading scholar of loneliness has estimated that as many as one in five Americans suffers from being lonely.
Feeling isolated not only has adverse effects on our mental health, but negative consequences for our physical health as well. One study found that people who were not connected to others were three times as likely to die over the course of nine years as those who had strong social ties. Another study found that people who are lonely are at higher risk for inflammatory diseases. One study even suggested that loneliness may be contagious.
If we are indeed in the midst of a "loneliness epidemic," it's worth asking: What causes loneliness?
Sure, depression is common in old age, and people are living longer than ever before. But the role of the elderly within communities is also shifting, from traditional societies where the elderly held a hallowed place as the repository of community customs, history and stories, to post-industrial societies where this guidance function is much less valued. As this sociological shift takes place, older people risk feeling marginalized from their families and neighborhoods, particularly if they end up in nursing homes. Flickr photo by Horia Varlan
Writing about the loneliness epidemic, one national columnist talked about the "three Ds": death, divorce and delayed marriage. It's not hard to see why the death of a spouse would trigger a feeling of loneliness. Jane E. Brody had a lovely meditation on this topic in the New York Times not long ago. The divorce point is more interesting. We know, for example, that online dating has seen its highest growth rate among baby boomers. But all that dating doesn't necessarily translate into feeling less lonely. Sometimes it just reinforces it, as people bounce from one partner to another. Flickr photo by firemedic58
Which brings us to social media. The central thesis of The Atlantic article I referenced earlier is that even as we become ever more connected as a society digitally, we are becoming less immersed in real-life social ties. This is not a new thesis, and as someone who spends a lot of time online I can readily attest to its accuracy. What's interesting about the article is that it looks very closely at Facebook and references research suggesting that while "active" interaction on Facebook -- e.g., making a comment on someone's status update, sending a private message -- tends to make people feel less lonely, just passively scrolling through other people's feeds and hitting the odd "like" button can make you feel more lonely. An earlier study offers some insight into this finding: Because we are psychologically predisposed to overestimate other people's happiness, when we see the invariably upbeat, relentlessly witty and sometimes just plain gushing status updates that pretty much define Facebook, it makes us feel worse about ourselves.
Here's a factor I hadn't considered, but which makes perfect sense. According to Robert Putnam, the famed Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, long commuting times are one of the most robust predictors of social isolation. Specifically, every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10 percent fewer "social connections." And those social connections tend to make us feel happy and fulfilled. Flickr photo by Richard Masoner
There is also likely a genetic component to loneliness. One survey of loneliness among twins showed much less variability in the self-reporting of loneliness among identical twins than among fraternal ones. There's also been a lot of fascinating research coming out of The University of Chicago about the way in which loneliness shapes brain development and vice versa, suggesting a neural mechanism in explaining loneliness. Flickr photo by Sheryl
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