- Loneliness in the U.S. has become a “public health crisis,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on May 3.
- It can be challenging to define loneliness, but feeling socially isolated can substantially degrade people's mental and physical health.
- Experts say there are many ways people can decrease loneliness and connect with others, such as expressing gratitude, engaging in small talk, and being around people face-to-face.
The U.S. is facing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA said in a press release on May 3.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said, about half of American adults reported feeling lonely. And this isn't simply a recipe for unhappiness—loneliness makes a person more likely to develop mental health issues, and it can increase the risk for premature death by more than 60%.
”Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis,” Dr. Murthy said in the press release. “We must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.”
Here’s what experts had to say about the ways in which loneliness affects our bodies, and the best ways to overcome feeling of isolation to boost longterm health.
How Does Human Connection Impact Health?
Researchers have long observed that loneliness is linked to poor health, explained Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical psychologist and instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. But the issue now seems to have more weight.
“The pandemic created a unique opportunity to observe the natural consequences of reduced or restricted social interaction in humans,” Dattilo told Health. “What is new is the spotlight on loneliness and conversations around its consequences.”
How a person defines their loneliness varies, she added. While some people describe loneliness as physical isolation or social disconnection, others experience a deep sense of emptiness or a longing for inclusion, intimacy, friendship, or community.
“No matter how a person experiences it, however, loneliness is unwanted and unpleasant,” Dattilo said. “Even those who enjoy their ‘alone time’ can experience loneliness. Indeed, individuals in committed and healthy relationships can often feel lonely. That’s because loneliness is in the ‘eye of the beholder.’”
Despite how difficult it is to define, feeling lonely can have clear and substantial effects on the body.
Loneliness puts a person at a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Being lonely also results in an elevated mortality risk that is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It can also double an adult’s risk of developing depression as compared to those who rarely feel lonely. And children who feel socially isolated face higher risks of anxiety and depression during childhood and later on in adulthood, too.
Social isolation also seems to be getting more common—between 2003 and 2020, the amount of time people spent engaging in-person with friends, family, and extended family declined. In contrast, the amount of time spent alone increased.
Even still, these markers can’t perfectly predict how many people feel loneliness. A person can be in a room full of people or have great relationships and friendships and still feel alone.
“This can make it a very difficult experience to generalize and in a clinical sense, treat,” said Dattilo.
Mental Illness Is on the Rise
11 Ways to Feel Less Lonely
Despite the complexity of loneliness and the many ways that it can affect our health, there are still methods out there to ease feelings of loneliness. While strategies for tackling loneliness are unique to each individual, the following are some to try out.
Don’t blame yourself
Rather than blaming yourself for feeling lonely or correlating loneliness with being broken, reframe how you think about it, said Caroline Leaf, PhD, a clinical and cognitive neuroscientist.
“See it as a signal letting you know that something essential to how you function as a human is missing—it is a signpost telling you more about yourself and what you need to live your best life,” Leaf told Health.
See people face-to-face
Simply seeing human faces and making eye contact is important for connection, said Dattilo.
“In fact, we have specific structures in the brain dedicated to this activity alone,” she said. “Aim to interact or simply be among other people at least once a day.”
Each week, take some time to plan face-to-face interactions, whether that be a work lunch, a coffee with a friend, or a walk with a neighbor.
Leave your house
Think about activities to engage in that require you to get out of your house. Leaf suggested starting a book club, hiking, attending church or a spiritual center, or arranging dinners at local restaurants and inviting someone new each time.
“This may be a little uncomfortable at first, but just remember everyone loves to be included, and you never know who may be really struggling,” she said. “The simple act of reaching out may be what helps someone heal.”
Turn off your phone
While phones can be a means to connection, limiting the time you spend on them can help you connect with people in other ways, said Leaf.
“Some of the worst effects of electronic devices seem to be mitigated when devices are used less than two hours a day,” she said. “Increase your face-to-face interaction with your loved ones. Maybe put your phone aside when you are eating. Or leave it at home when you go for a walk.”
Make small talk
While close relationships are fulfilling, Dattilo said experiencing different levels of interaction is important.
“Casual encounters are just as key to our happiness as deep meaningful ones,” she said. “Aim to make small talk with someone familiar, or unfamiliar, twice a week,” she said.
Leaf suggested putting effort into being more friendly.
“When you are in a small space with a stranger, such as an elevator, smile and say hello instead of looking at the floor or your phone. Think of ways to start a conversation,” she said.
Express gratitude daily
Giving and receiving sincere thank–yous is associated with greater levels of self-reported happiness, said Dattilo. That can be as simple as thanking a cashier at the grocery store, she said.
Reaching out to people in your life and letting them know how much they mean to you is another way to show gratitude.
“Send an email or text to someone, telling them you are thinking of them, or invite someone to dinner,” Leaf said. “Develop a habit of reaching out to friends, family, and colleagues and see if they need anything, even if you just send them a little word of encouragement now and then.”
Lagom Can Be Your Path to Living a Balanced Life
Finding moments to serve others can build community, Leaf explained.
“It also reminds us that we have value to bring to the world, which helps us feel connected to those around us,” she said. “This could be as simple as helping a colleague at work who is having a rough time, reaching out to a friend or family member who you know is struggling, [or] helping a stranger at a shop who doesn’t have enough change for parking.”
Listen to others
Making others feel heard can build mutual feelings of connection.
“Listen to understand by asking questions instead of offering solutions or sharing similar experiences,” said Dattilo. “Feeling heard and understood is really at the core of feeling connected.”
In Leaf’s book Think, Learn, Succeed, she discusses how reaching out to loved ones when you are in need can help you feel confident enough to discover your own sense of self-worth.
“Finding life difficult at times is not something to be ashamed of, while suppressing emotions will only make matters worse. Talk to a friend, a family member, a local counselor, or an online help center. The key to healing is not in pretending you are always okay,” she said. “Rather, healing comes from being proactive in seeking help and helping others.”
Avoid unhealthy ways to connect
Sometimes loneliness can be a trigger for engaging in activities that are unhealthy, such as using alcohol to excess, using drugs, or engaging in risky sexual practices, said Dattilo.
“If this is a pattern you recognize in yourself, consider reaching out for support or professional assistance in developing healthier habits and skills for creating connection,” she said.
Find connection in unexpected ways
For those who aren’t comfortable around others, Dattilo said a strong sense of connection can also be developed within.
“You can achieve the same or similar protective effects by developing a greater sense of connection to self. Or, to nature. To pets. To a cause. To your values. To your purpose. To your higher power, consciousness, religion, spirituality, the ‘greater good,’ or humanity,” she said. “Most times, those things don’t require other people, but sometimes can be enhanced by the presence of like-minded others.”