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  • Writer's pictureCoach Kat


It has been said that loneliness is worse for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes per day. How can that be possible? Smoking increases your risk of cancers, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts, glaucoma, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, acid reflux, babies born with cleft palate, SIDS, vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, lupus, erectile dysfunction, ectopic pregnancy, and lung diseases including emphysema, COPD, and chronic bronchitis. Smoking is harmful to nearly every organ in the body and causes 1:5 deaths in the United States.

So, again, how is it possible that loneliness is worse for your health than smoking? Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy says he thinks “of loneliness as an epidemic because it affects a great number of people in our country but also because one person’s loneliness can have an impact on another person” (Dharapak, AP). Murthy sees loneliness as a public health issue because it affects all people from coast-to-coast of all ages and all socioeconomic backgrounds. Let’s dive deeper into this epidemic.

We are technologically connected, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s, according to Murthy. It is human nature to NEED meaningful social connection. Research on the effects of loneliness by University of Chicago social neuroscientist, John T. Capioppo, finds that a sense of isolation or social rejection impairs not only the immune system, leading to chronic disease, but loneliness also impairs the ability to think. Therefore, loneliness is not only linked to chronic disease but also to depression and anxiety. When viewed this way, loneliness also impedes creativity, decision-making, and focus, in turn, leading to decreased task performance especially in the workplace.

In an interview with The Washington Post (McGregor, Oct. 4, 2017), Murthy said, “Our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time, including the workplace.” Ah, the workplace. The place where Americans spend 40 plus hours per week. This is the place of primary social engagement for most individuals, for better or worse. For those with few social ties, social engagement in the workplace can make or break their day. Many times, relationships in the workplace are seen in a professional light and not as deep, trustworthy friendships.

While holding the position of Surgeon General, Murthy created opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other on a personal level. For instance, at weekly staff meetings, the floor would be open for one person to talk about their story for five minutes, to paint a picture of their lives outside of the job. However, for this to succeed, leaders in the company would have to talk about their lives and to open themselves to being vulnerable. Vulnerability leads us to the next challenge. Often, emotions are seen as a source of weakness rather than a source of power. Changing this mindset of associating emotions with weakness will have to occur both on an individual level as well as on a cultural level in order to be open to forming social connections.

The United States is not the only country that has started to recognize the importance of social connections and the epidemic of loneliness. According to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than nine million people in the United Kingdom often or always feel lonely. Research also showed that about 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. This prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint a Minister of Loneliness “to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by careers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences” (Yeginsu, Jan. 17, 2018, The New York Times).

Because of this, it is only a matter of time before loneliness turns to depression. This cycle of loneliness, lack of social connection, depression, and social isolation take us back to increased incidences of chronic disease. Not only does chronic disease decrease lifespan, loneliness itself is associated with decreased quality and quantity of years. The reduction in lifespan for loneliness is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

By Coach Kat, Nov. 14, 2018, copyright Bronwyn Katdaré 2018

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