This month, the U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory on loneliness titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” According to the advisory, approximately half of U.S. adults experienced loneliness daily, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated the situation. Lack of social connection, states the advisory, can present significant health risks and increase the risk of premature death by 26%. It also increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, dementia, and is regarded as one of the primary motivations for self-harm.
But perhaps the most disturbing conclusion that emerges from the advisory is the decline in social connections among teenagers and young adults. The decline in social connection time “is starkest for young people ages 15 to 24, it states. For this age group, time spent in-person with friends has reduced by nearly 70% over almost two decades,” between 2003-2020.
Loneliness is the feeling that I cannot maintain positive reciprocal connections with the people around me. It is not a matter of the number of people who surround me, or the length of time I spend on social media platforms. Feeling alone depends on the quality of the connections, not their quantity. If I feel disconnected, and that I cannot trust the people I am in touch with to support me, and I, too, am disinclined to support them, I will experience loneliness.
Not everyone dreads being alone. Some people do not feel disconnected or unsupported because they have few or perhaps no people around them. For others, however, physical isolation translates into a sensation of loneliness, with all its adverse effects.
From the moment of birth, the people around us shape our understanding, views, sensations, and perception of the world. I may live in some isolated village, disconnected from civilization, but feel deeply connected to my fellow villagers. In such a state, I will not feel lonely because those around me provide me with all the support and warmth I need, and what I learn through my connections with them suffices for the life I am leading.
On the flip side, I may be surrounded by millions of people, but if none of them provides me with support and warmth, and what I learn from them does not provide me with tools that help me cope with life successfully, I will feel alone and lonely. Moreover, the masses of indifferent people around me only amplify my feeling of loneliness and insecurity.
I do not need enemies in order to feel lonely; the apathy of the environment is enough to make one feel like a meaningless speck, and very few people can deal with feeling worthless.
Especially for young people, who are the most affected by social isolation, we must not ignore the spreading loneliness epidemic. By nature, young people need social connections, as these are their formative years, when they design their worldviews and master the art of living in a civilized society. Without healthy connections, they will grow up insecure and maladapted to society. Such people will never be happy.
If we remain inactive in the face of the spreading epidemic, the social consequences could be horrendous. Luckily, we are not helpless. The more active we are toward our environment, the more we can change it. If we are positive toward it, it will reciprocate our attitude. To get support and affirmation from the environment, we need not look for others to provide it to us. Instead, we should initiate such behavior toward others, and they will reciprocate our positive and supportive behavior.
Most of us are afraid to open our hearts. We have been conditioned to think that if we open our hearts to others, we become vulnerable and people will hurt us. However, for the most part, the opposite is true: If we open our hearts to others, they will open their hearts to us.
Our loneliness, therefore, is more manageable than we might think. If we make the first move toward others, in all likelihood, they will make the next move toward us, and not against us. We can cure the loneliness epidemic, but we must want to cure it, and we must be willing to take small chances. And most importantly, we should not expect others to be friendly to us, unless we are first friendly to them.