A Losing Fight With Loneliness

“But only the lonely know why, I cry, only the lonely.” These are now classic words of the chorus of a Roy Orbison song that became his first smash hit back in 1960. It obviously resonated with music fans, both back then as well as today, who could relate to its message and the feeling of being lonely. Loneliness as a theme remains fertile ground for songwriters as they continue to crank out tunes about feeling alone, filling Billboard’s Hot 100 charts.

Why is it such a popular theme? Because we all have felt those feelings at some point. In fact, for some, maybe even right now. According to recent research, the risk of suffering from loneliness is on the rise in America. If the condition is prolonged and intense, it can lead to the risk of adverse health outcomes. This includes heart disease, stroke, a weakened immune system, obesity, inflammation, depression, anxiety and even premature death, says Science of People, an online science-based guide to social skills and behavior. They report that a recent study surveying more than 2,000 people across the U.S. from 18-89 years old — from baby boomers to millennials to Gen Z, young people, young adults, and older adults — all report being lonely. “Researchers could not find any age-related predictors of loneliness,” they say.

One things researchers stress in protecting against feelings of loneliness is the importance of forging strong social bonds as well as being a part of a community. But for many of the habitually lonely, it is not that easy. Arthur C. Brooks is a Harvard University professor, social scientist, bestselling author and columnist for The Atlantic. “As research has shown, loneliness likely inhibits our executive function, which we need in order to deal with our distress appropriately,” he writes in a recent column. “Think of a time when you felt very lonely, and instead of doing what you really needed to do — call people, get outside, and be social — you cocooned on the sofa by yourself … Loneliness, like homelessness or poverty, tends to be self-perpetuating.”

As Brooks describes it, throughout modern history, communities of people have shown themselves to have strength and resiliency in the face of trauma. During the German Blitz bombings of Britain during World War II, Londoners came together and rebuilt the city. It is but one example of people going through the critical process of moving from surviving to thriving. Scholars have shown it to be a common experience where people come together and work together, not just for their recovery but that of the community. “COVID-19 appears to be resistant to this phenomenon,” he writes.

“Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished,” he says. “In a poll conducted in March 2022 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they had not fully returned to their pre-pandemic activities.”

In addition, “most respondents in a spring 2022 survey of American adults said they found it harder to form relationships now, and a quarter felt anxious about socializing. Only 9 percent were worried about being physically near others; the biggest source of anxiety (shared by 29 percent) was ‘not knowing what to say or how to interact.’ Many of us have simply forgotten how to be friends,” he adds.

Loneliness is not just a growing problem here in America; it is affecting other nations as well. The condition now has its own week. June 13-17 is now designated as “Loneliness Awareness Week.” Established by Marmalade Trust, the U.K.’s leading loneliness charity, it is designed to reduce the stigma of loneliness and encourage people to talk more openly about it.

According to a Business Insider report, researchers at Harvard University, Stanford University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia conducted a study examining how certain coping strategies tended to significantly increase the risk of loneliness. Among the factors were an individual’s tendency to excessively think about something. Other causes were: “blame, either directed at oneself or at other people; imagining catastrophic scenarios; suppression of negative feelings; deliberate withdrawal from social contacts and avoidance of other people; and a refusal of emotional support.

“The study also found that those who felt the loneliest were less likely to use ‘cognitive reappraisal,’ which is where you put a positive spin on stressful situations,” says Business Insider.

As recently reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon, one group of women have recently come upon a “radical cure” for their sense of loneliness. They have found solace in turning to the simple act of blocking off time to call a friend. Text messaging alone just wasn’t cutting it, and as one woman explained it, “the stream of short, written updates often feels transactional.”

“As the loneliness of the pandemic lingers, they’ve gained new perspective on the importance of friendship. They’re channeling it into the sort of lengthy phone calls that marked their teen years,” Jargon writes. Like how people carve out specific time for the gym or some other scheduled check-in, these women started carving out a good block of time to talk with a friend.

“What I was missing was real connection, and not just with other people, but with myself,” says 35-year-old Doulton Wiltshire. “Talking to my friends is my therapy.”

Adds 54-year-old Shari Edelson: “Friendship isn’t commenting on a picture someone posted on Instagram or commenting on a text. Hearing someone laugh or cry, that’s friendship.”

“Talking on the phone these days requires planning,” Jargon reminds us, “If you could call someone, they’re likely to think something bad has happened.”

“Eight decades of research from Harvard University has shown that close relationships are the most critical component of health, happiness and longevity, more so than exercise and a good diet,” she notes.

“COVID-19 may well have cut a groove of loneliness into your life. Going with what is easy and convenient in work and friendship cuts that groove deeper, making your isolation harder to escape. But if you can remember the warmth and happiness of your old social self and make a few changes, 2023 can be a year of renewal,” suggests Brooks.