A Lonely Epidemic

The result is serious health problems, including depression, lack of sleep and anxiety

By Kellyn Brown

As we gather with friends and family for small-town art walks and ugly sweater parties, it’s an ideal time to rebuild relationships with those we may have lost track of over the last year. Christmas is a time to reconnect. But here’s an even better idea: Don’t disconnect in the first place.

Americans are lonely. And whether it’s because of artificial friendships fostered by social media or the increasing hours many of us work, our emotional wellbeing is now considered an epidemic.

“In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States,” according to Psychology Today. “In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, it was found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated.”

The result is serious health problems, including depression, lack of sleep and anxiety. Loneliness has especially inflicted the nation’s younger population.

And while policymakers have pointed to fewer adults marrying and more of them living alone, as The Atlantic pointed out, the research on loneliness is more straightforward: “People who have more friends, or confidants to turn to in times of need, tend to be less lonely.”

Yet, I would argue, we often take those friends and confidants for granted. We allow weeks and months to pass without connecting with those we rely upon for friendship and, it turns out, a healthy state of mind. Then a holiday party rolls around and we exclaim: “I haven’t seen you forever. Let’s not let this happen again.” But we do let it happen again, sucked into the next distraction or finding the next excuse.

It’s easier than ever to communicate, but somehow that has translated into fewer meaningful interactions, not more. And it’s literally killing us.

“Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in a lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review.

Disconnecting from those you care about shortens your lifespan during a time in which American life expectancy — due to drug overdoses and suicides — is already declining for the first time in decades.

Another theory on why we’re lonelier is rampant tribalism in politics. In his recent book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse writes that “liberals and conservatives no longer believe the same things, we don’t understand how our opponents believe what they believe, and we soothe our lonely souls with the balm of contempt.”

Sasse’s view may seem extreme, but Americans’ habit of defining themselves by what we’re against instead of what we’re for is certainly wearing on us.

Whatever the root cause, a silver lining in this epidemic is that it’s fixable. Building meaningful relationships is a choice. Spending time with someone instead of “liking” their social media post is a choice. Reconnecting beyond the obligatory holiday party is a choice.

This time of year can be especially lonely for those who don’t have someone with whom to share it. Montana is a unique place. Compared to most other states, our residents’ wellbeing ranks higher. But we’re still largely isolated — and it’s too easy to forget about each other.

We need to make more of an effort and reverse this self-inflicted epidemic. Our long-term health depends on it.

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