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Ok, You’re Lonely, Now What? Loneliness is an epidemic, and it’s not restricted to the elderly


©Andrey Kiselev

The world is full of possibilities and anyone can have hundreds or thousands of “friends.” Why, then, has loneliness reached epic proportions and it’s not where you would think; it’s not the elderly. Studies in the US and the UK have determined that loneliness may be an affliction of the young. The elderly appear to benefit from life experience and the development of resilience brought on by life’s transitions.


Loneliness is not a new-found mental health disorder but it may be something that is indicative of our current culture. The void we feel that we call loneliness is a reaction to a failure of our innate need for socialization.


Cave dwellers or people living on the savannas, I suspect, didn’t experience loneliness because of their shared need to work as a group to survive. To be lonely at that far-off time would have meant our ultimate and rapid demise from starvation and death. Remaining a fully functioning member of the group was essential, and yet today we see all too many people suffering the pangs of loneliness in huge groups.


We are jammed into living situations in ever-smaller areas. Our habitats are reaching skyward, and we wonder how anyone can be lonely? There are so many people around us that it is puzzling.


The Loneliness Gene


Researchers believe there is a “loneliness gene” that contributes over 50% to the total equation, and the other half is environmental. Should we blame it on our genes and, if so, is a pharmacologic intervention our only hope? Probably not.


We live in a quick-and-easy, ready-made society, with pharmacologic solutions that are supposed to provide answers. Will they relieve the sense of isolation that is the central component of loneliness? How could a pill possibly enable us to feel more involved, more connected, and more a part of this vast island we call Earth?


Pills are not the panacea for all that is human. The human experience involves feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and if we try to erase or remove all of those feelings, what is left? Do we become emotionless, automatons that move through life with little connection to each other and function much like machines?


Artificial intelligence is becoming a part of our lives. In the next decade, it will have replaced many of the human beings with whom we regularly would come into contact. We are social beings, animals if you wish. The loneliness epidemic may be on the verge of becoming a part of our everyday lives. Grocery stores, gas stations, the corner newsstand, ad the large box store, are all going to be automated. Much of our purchasing will be on the Internet or with Internet-connected devices. There will be no need to interact with flesh-and-blood individuals.


The Loneliness Experiment


A total of 55,000 people participated in an online study conducted by the BBC in the UK known as the “Loneliness Experiment.” What were the findings? Forty percent of the people in the study, between the ages of 16–24, often or very often felt lonely compared to 27% of those over 75. Besides, 25% said that they had no close friends at all. The disproportion of loneliness in younger people appears to cross cultures, countries, and gender. Why might that be?


A casual look around you on any street, in any city in the world, will reveal the presence of the loneliness cocoon. People are walking down the road, crossing busy boulevards, getting on trains or buses, standing in line at a store, or even driving their car and stopping at red lights.


What are they all doing? They are staring at their cell phones to the exclusion of everyone and everything around them. They are in a digital cocoon, which requires their total concentration and does not allow them to interact. On some level, they are hypnotized or addicted to the digital media or device that they hold. No longer is this instrument a servant. It has become the master. Cell phones may be the non-pharmacologic equivalent to cocaine.


We have to wonder if they cannot tolerate the quiet of being in one place with their own thoughts and must be constantly stimulated. Cell phone games or other activity provides a high degree of stimulation as well as the feel-good hormone of dopamine. This use of cell phones can mean addiction, but it also engenders loneliness in the service of producing the hormone — quite a dilemma.


Our loneliness, if it is partially genetic, receiving the other 50% (environmental) from our willingness to engage in self-isolator behavior such as cell phone usage for that dopamine rush. The scourge would seem more likely of our own making, and that provides hope for remediation.


Calculate Your Loneliness


The loss of our connection to a significant group may be the nexus for our loneliness. Once we begin to drift in this direction, anxiety, and depression, along with stress, enters the scene. Research has shown that loneliness isn’t merely a feeling, but a physical assault on our bodies and a potential cause of chronic illness. The medical community has indicated that chronic loneliness reduces our mortality and can bring on premature death and disease via immune system dysfunction.


The UCLA Loneliness Scale, developed by Dr. Daniel Russell, a professor at UCLA and his team, is not intended to be a clinical measure but serves as a means of assisting you in a quick-and-dirty way to evaluate your loneliness.It has been revised, shortened and is freely available but may not be sold.


Instructions: For each statement, indicate how often you feel the way described using the values of the numbers shown below. There are no right or wrong answers.

1=Never 2=Rarely 3=Sometimes 4=Always

1. How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?

2. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?

3. How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?

4. How often do you feel as if no one understands you?

5. How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?

6. How often do you feel completely alone?

7. How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with those around you?

8. How often do you feel starved for company?

9. How often do you feel it is difficult for you to make friends?

10. How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?


Scoring

Total up your scores

Average loneliness score is 20

Scores above 25 may reflect a high degree of loneliness

UCLA Loneliness Scale © Dr. Daniel Russell


Working Your Way Back to Inclusion


What can you do right now to help yourself begin to be free of loneliness? No magic here and it is entirely in your hands.


1. Engage with people whenever possible. Wherever you find yourself, you can engage; in the market, at the bus stop, in the office or waiting in line at the bank.

2. Reach out to family and friends, people at work or school and set up a meeting for lunch or coffee or picking up a hot dog at a local food truck.

3. Join a group or take a cooking or writing, coding class, anything you like in your area. Someone I knew joined a barbershop quartet, and an overworked physician joined her church choir.

4. Volunteer for some charitable group such as Habitat for Humanity or a food bank, or to become a reading mentor.

5. Get a pet, preferably a dog because that will mean you get out on walks and meet other dog owners and get exercise as a second benefit.


Remember that line from the Bill Murray film What About Bob? where he is encouraged to “Take baby steps.” Good advice for anyone who wants to rid themselves of loneliness. One step at a time, and you can begin that most-important journey.

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL