Loneliness has become a virtual epidemic in many countries. You might know someone who is lonely, or perhaps you are lonely. Deep down, we all yearn for relationships with others. But when we experience loneliness, it is stressful and can even be painful. This becomes most evident around Thanksgiving or Christmas when families and friends gather together. In stark contrast lonely people are reminded almost daily that they are alone and sadly the suicide rate goes up. Loneliness is much more than living alone — some married people experience loneliness because they cannot connect in a deep, meaningful way with their spouse.
The significance of loneliness can no longer be minimized — it can have a major impact on your health. Current medical research now shows that loneliness is linked to significant health hazards:
Loneliness has been linked to everything from heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease. Depression is common among the lonely. Cancers tear through their bodies more rapidly, and viruses hit them harder and more frequently. In the short term, it feels like the loneliness will kill you. A study suggests that’s because the pain of loneliness activates the immune pattern of a primordial response commonly known as fight or flight.
Genomics research has shown strong evidence for higher inflammation levels in blood samples from lonely people. Loneliness causes stress and is among any number of stressors that cause the inflammation issues which lead to a compromised immune system. Research has shown higher levels of norepinephrine and lower levels of cortisol, and when in a chronic long-term state this would compromise anyone’s health. In addition, there’s a higher risk of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and succumbing to viruses. We don’t normally think of loneliness as “harzardous to your health”, but some researchers would go so far as to suggest that being lonely for a long time can be as hazardous to your health as smoking more than 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is clinically referred to as “Perceived Social Isolation”, or PSI, and in other studies is linked to cardiovascular issues. None of this should be a surprise since we are integrated beings – body, soul and spirit – understood clearly through the fields of psychosomatics and psycho-neuro-immunology. Our emotions affect our health and the reverse is also true.
Are you lonely? There is now a rating scale to measure loneliness – the UCLA Loneliness Scale — with a 20 item checklist in response to your subjective feelings. In many of my visits to Starbucks for my favorites expresso coffees, I have noticed students busy working on their assignments. I fully expect some students do that because they are quite lonely and at least want to be around people. Some surveys have shown that loneliness is a major issue for many university students. Many years ago, while a student at the University of Waterloo, my first university co-op work term was with a computer company in Toronto. It was the loneliest period of my life, even though I was surrounded by millions of people. The weekends were absolutely dreadful – no one to spend them with, no meaningful relationships, the hours dragged on mercilessly. I could identify with the Beatle’s song “Lonely People”, a kind of social lament from the experience of millions of people. All of us are probably surrounded by more lonely people than we realize. There are many factors contributing to increasing loneliness – divorce, urbanization, decline of community, smaller families, social media that can ironically diminish real relationships, and more.
The Heart’s Longing for Relationships
We were all created for relationships (Genesis 2:18; Psalm 68:6), it is like the “longing of the heart”. There is no substitute for meaningful, healthy relationships with a few people in your life. We are all meant to have friends, to connect with others, to be understood, to be able to share “heart and soul” with another person. But some people are difficult or even abusive, so instead of being stressed from loneliness we could be stressed from toxic relationships. This must be avoided or resolved, because that too causes similar health issues. Hence the need for not only meaningful, but healthy relationships with others. We need authentic, caring, real communities.
Drugs or “Social Prescriptions”?
We can well imagine someone who is quite lonely feeling depressed, eventually visiting a doctor and is soon diagnosed with depression and given a prescription for an anti-depressant. This minimizes a person’s life in complete disregard for their wider human context. The medical professional focuses on symptomology and diagnosis when what a person really needs is friends, relationships and community. This is the proverbial “not seeing the forest for the trees”. Fortunately, there are primary care physicians who are taking a more holistic approach to people’s health, including the health impact of loneliness. This newer approach is called “social prescription“. Some physicians will refer a person to social and volunteer agencies to help people connect, as much as possible depending on the person and the social possibilities.
The Healing Power of Community
The implications should be obvious by now. Instead of viewing medication, clinical professionals and mental health experts as having the “real solutions”, we need to fully appreciate the healing power of relationships and community. Could it be that a lady’s quilting group, or a gardening club, or a summer camp for disadvantaged children, or thoughtful neighbours who invite lonely people down the street into their home, or friendships developed from soccer meetings could lead to long term relationships that will prevent cancer, heart attacks, or depression? This is, indeed, what recent medical research is telling us. We dare not minimize the “simple things” that build community and relationships.
But relationships and community are not some commodity. How many people have a “professional mother” or bond with “paid friends”? Friendship is a gift, a sign of God’s grace in your life. In addition to many communities and social relationships, the Church can reach out to people to show genuine love with understanding, acceptance and community with integrity (John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:2). While not all churches are “people friendly” for lonely people, many churches are. Ultimately, the greatest relationship is with Jesus (John 1:12-14; 6:35; Matthew 22:9-10). As St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) wrote “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”
Do you know of someone who is lonely? Consider reaching out, including that person in your life and in your community. The seemingly small act of kindness will probably be far more profound than you could ever realize. I fully expect that you will be blessed in doing so.