Various studies have shown that feeling lonely — and living alone — can raise your risk of a premature death. Now, the UK is leading the world in an effort to reduce its citizens’ loneliness.
Humans are social creatures. Even for the most introverted among us, that fact still rings true. It’s how we evolved mentally, emotionally, and physically; and without the benefits that human interaction provides, our overall health will rapidly decline. Still, for a variety of factors, huge numbers of people across the world are living in relative social isolation. The problem is especially pronounced in the United Kingdom (an estimated 9 million Britons live in isolation), where Prime Minister Theresa May has just appointed a special “Minister For Loneliness” to address this issue.
Although people from all walks of life can find themselves confronted with the cold realities of loneliness, Theresa May noted that some groups hit the hardest include the elderly and those who have been widowed from their spouse. For the elderly, a general feeling of loss of connection with the world around them, compounded by the loss of peers and friends of their own age, can lead to feelings of profound isolation. For the widowed, losing a spouse can feel like losing half of yourself and your most trusted confidant. Especially for couples who spent most of their time with each other, the sudden absence of a partner can totally disrupt and remove the vast majority of opportunities for social interaction.
As you can well imagine, there are serious consequences on mental health for those suffering from loneliness. But you might be surprised to learn that prolonged isolation can take a measurable physical toll, as well. Studies abound with discouraging data showing that those who live alone are more likely to die early than those who do not. Yet, the negative impacts of isolation are not limited to the middle-aged and elderly — social media addiction is a leading cause of feelings of isolation and loneliness in younger generations.
To combat loneliness, we need to view social interactions as something essential for our overall well-being. If you feel yourself being sucked into a spiral of isolation and loneliness, make an effort to join a group, play a sport, take a class, or visit a place where social interaction is nearly guaranteed. If you have difficulty motivating yourself to do so (or difficulty thinking of something to do), consult with your doctor about options that might fit your interests and lifestyle.
Beyond that, it’s also our duty to look out for those around us who may be suffering in silence. That neighbor who lives alone and never says much? Maybe ask them how they’re doing and make an effort to connect with them. The elderly gentleman who sits alone in the park every day? Perhaps consider striking up a conversation with him. We’ll all be the better for it when we look out for one another as a society in this way.