Loneliness is becoming a public health issue.
We live in a time when we're more connected than ever, and yet a recent survey found that most Americans could be classified as lonely — feeling out of step with the world, not creating meaningful relationships, and seeing themselves as disconnected, even when they're with others. That same survey showed that young Americans may be the most lonely demographic. And that's a problem.
Social isolation comes with health concerns, both physical and mental. According to a 2010 study, loneliness could be just as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it can be a factor in the development of depression, and it can hasten cognitive decline due to a lack of intellectual stimulation.
Now that the problem's been recognized, solutions are coming fast.
Of course, feeling lonely is normal some of the time, just as it's normal to feel anxious or have a low mood once in a while. It's when it becomes prolonged that loneliness is an issue. Transforming loneliness takes perseverance, but there's evidence that isolation doesn't have to be a permanent condition.
In large cities — where one can feel lost even in a crowd — co-working and co-living facilities have become increasingly common.
If you're someone who works from home, you already understand both the ecstasy and the agony of the position (no pants, ever, but also no one to talk to). That's why co-working is so ideal. The space doesn't just give one a space to work, it puts people into contact with one another, allowing them to create small communities where they can bounce ideas off each other, vent, and create friendships that extend beyond happy hour.
Co-living spaces, while not as ubiquitous, also offer a solution to loneliness. They allow like-minded people to live together, work together, and form strong bonds. Unlike traditional roommate situations, this isn't just about a few people sharing the rent — it's also about schedules, interests, and personalities. This ensures that people aren't merely living together; they're forming a cohesive bond for residents that hopefully will last even after they've left the space.
Humans need connection to thrive. Sometimes the best way is through helping others.
A recent study, for example, found that volunteering 100 hours a year (or two hours a week) can have health benefits, especially after experiencing a loss. When researchers studied older people who had lost a spouse, they found that those who made volunteering a regular part of their routine were able to bounce back more quickly. Volunteering has also been shown to reduce stress and lower blood pressure. And researchers have suggested that this can work for all groups of people.
All this means greater hope for the future.
It's no surprise that former surgeon general Vivek Murthy cited loneliness as an "epidemic" that needs to be treated on a large scale. Part of that treatment is knowledge, and as society becomes more and more aware that loneliness can have painful consequences, it's important for us to work harder to make connections. The people we spend our time with don't just enrich our lives. They could be making them longer too.