In “Millennials and the Loneliness Epidemic,” Forbes contributor Neil Howe reports that tens of millions suffer from this affliction—and not just Millennials—in such countries as the United States, France, and England. In Japan, Howe tells us, more than half a million people don’t leave their homes or interact with others for six months at a time. In one 2016 poll, 42 percent of British female Millennials claimed to be more terrified by the possibility of loneliness than by being diagnosed with cancer.
Explanations for this increased sense of isolation abound. In her excellent article “Alone: The Decline of the Family Has Unleashed an Epidemic of Loneliness,” Kay Hymowitz points to falling birth rates, childlessness, divorce, reduced dependence on families for care and welfare, and other changes in the family as contributing to this pandemic of feeling detached and unloved.
Other commentators blame this undesired solitude on the widespread use of social media and a consequent reduction in face-to-face interactions, the drastic slide in membership in certain service organizations and amateur sports teams, both of which once provided avenues for comradery and friendship, and the effects of a transitory society on long-term relationships.
Many of these articles also point out that feelings of isolation can lead to severe depression, a decline in cognitive ability, and even early mortality. WebMD rates the effects of loneliness as detrimental to our health as obesity and smoking. Here in America, the 21st century has seen a decline in American life expectancy, a phenomenon not witnessed since the flu epidemic a century ago. This drop in life expectancy is due not to disease, but is instead the result of increased deaths by suicide, alcoholism, and opioids, which some cite as pathologies of loneliness.
So what can we do? If we feel, as vast numbers of people apparently do, that we have few or no intimate contacts with other people, how can we set off in a different direction? Here are some ideas.
But first a personal note. Since the death of my wife 15 years ago, I have spent great swaths of time alone, hours and hours of necessary and desired isolation, in large part because of my work as a writer and teacher. (Teaching involved lesson planning and, in my case, evenings spent grading essays.)
I was often alone, but rarely lonely. The two are in no way equivalent. For me, however, that happy circumstance may change. My daughter with whom I live, her husband, and their seven children have moved to a city four hours away, leaving me to tend the house until it sells. I have no close friends here, and though I have other children and grandchildren, none are within immediate proximity. The advice I offer is therefore intended for me as well as for my readers.
Recognize Your Loneliness
The first step to conquering any problem is recognition. Try to identify reasons for your isolation. Is the cause something temporary, like a move to a new city? Or do you feel cut off from human contact because of some painful wound, a divorce or the loss of a loved one? How long have you experienced this sense of separation from others? Does your isolation often leave you lethargic or depressed? Ask such questions and seek the answers.
Use Technology as a Weapon Against Isolation
Though some blame social media as a cause for loneliness, our electronic devices can strengthen human ties. Instead of texting your daughter on the West Coast or that friend who moved to Florida, make the call. Talk to a human being instead of a machine. Seek out email relationships with family and friends. Look up organizations like Meetup online and discover whether there are groups near you with interests similar to your own. In Front Royal, Virginia, where I live, I found Meetup groups featuring a diversity of activities: hiking, beer tasting, book clubs, and more.