If you’ve ever felt lonely, you know the immense pain associated with it. It’s not only experienced as emotionally painful, but it is linked to multiple physical ailments and challenges, making it perhaps one of the greatest forms of suffering humans face. Despite the heavy toll it takes on us, we rarely ever talk about its importance. We live in a culture obsessed with optimizing everything about our health, except what is perhaps the single most important thing: being connected to others.
We are told to drink 8 glasses of water a day, eat a diet rich in nutrients, and engage in physical activity. We are told to take daily walks, get fresh air, and avoid smoking. But none of us are told to book that dinner with friends or take that vacation with our family. None of us are taught to prioritize meaningful social engagement and connection as hugely critical for living a healthy life and reducing our risk of multiple illnesses and, ultimately, an early death.
The single biggest risk factor for so many diseases, mental health illnesses, and death — social connection — is often treated as a lowest-order priority.
Feeling lonely or lacking social connection is riskier for us than obesity, lack of physical activity, and smoking, and yet we never talk about the need for it. It’s so risky and so widespread that the U.S. Surgeon General recently released an 85-page advisory declaring loneliness and social isolation a public health epidemic that poses devastating threats to our health. And yet, we fail to address it in the medical community as part of what it means to live a healthy life.
Social connection needs to be prescribed as part of a healthy lifestyle, much in the way that diet, exercise, and refraining from smoking are.
Scientists have known about the major health threat that loneliness and social isolation pose to both our mental and physical health, but for some reason this knowledge has yet to hit the mainstream public’s knowledge in any meaningful way. Alarming data abounds on the devastating health risks of loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness and social isolation are both linked with higher rates of developing heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, dementia, infectious diseases, depression and anxiety, and being suicidal.
Loneliness and social isolation are even linked to higher odds of dying prematurely; 29% and 26% increased risks, specifically. That’s more than obesity or lack of physical activity. And, experiencing social disconnectedness has the same risk factor for dying as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. In other words, loneliness has massive negative impacts on nearly every facet of our well-being and health.
Many of us are still experiencing the deep-rooted effects of loneliness in our lives that emerged during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have created workplace structures and daily life rhythms that promote social isolation and a lack of meaningful connection to others, putting us all at a major health risk for experiencing social isolation.
The universal toll of social isolation
We have largely removed social connection from the workplace, leaving most organizations struggling. We wonder why organizations are facing widespread turnover, employees are facing high levels of dissatisfaction and feeling like their work is meaningless, and many of us are suffering burnout. Social isolation in the workplace and a lack of meaningful connection are major contributors to many of the deleterious effects in the workplace.
At home, many of us are drowning in the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting and providing care for older adults, and doing it almost completely alone. This leaves many of us, especially those providing full-time care to any children or adults, feeling deeply lonely and isolated in these roles.
We fail to acknowledge the risk of social isolation to our most vulnerable populations, such as the aging. For instance, older adults are suffering social isolation due to an inability to leave their homes and socialize. All of this occurs while being forced to survive within a healthcare system that makes receiving in-home care and aid — which is often older adults’ only opportunity for social engagement — out of financial reach.
A great majority of us are lonely and isolated, and it’s creating a major threat to our ability to live meaningful lives and create a healthy society. The data support the reality that we are all likely to get sicker and die younger if we continue to pursue this track of devaluing social connection.
A case for social connection as a prescribed health behavior
The ground-breaking work of John Cacioppo, who was a Professor at the University of Chicago prior to his passing, underscores just how important social connections are. Cacioppo’s life’s work was on studying the neuroscience behind loneliness. In a New York Times piece on Cacioppo, he shared that his motivation for his line of work came after suffering a near-fatal car crash, after which it became crystal clear to him that “love and social connections are what really matter in life.”
Like Cacioppo, for most of us, what makes our lives worth living are meaningful connections to others — families, friends, coworkers. Even meaningful work is tied to doing work that feels like it impacts or connects to others in a meaningful way.
Given its massive benefits to our mental and physical health, social connection should be formally added to the list of recommended daily self-care habits, along with things like exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep. Rather than just focusing on going for that run or eating that salad, we ought to emphasize more formally and urgently things like hanging out with friends, eating a meal with loved ones, and enjoying the people in our lives. It’s in that space of social connection that our mental and physical health will thrive, allowing us to be better contributors to society and happier individuals.
Historically, social isolation and loneliness have been treated as lying outside the scope of medicine. This is, in part, due to the complexity of determining how to “prescribe” social connection. However, it can be done, as evidenced by programs in Britain’s healthcare system for social prescribing. Social prescribing refers to the process in which health professionals refer patients to seek support in their communities to improve their health and well-being.
We have been able to sidestep its importance until recently because we didn’t experience social isolation and loneliness on such a wide-scale, societal level. Moreover, Western culture is grounded in the false belief that if we prioritize social connections, we won’t work as hard, parent as thoroughly, or produce as much output. But as every facet of our society and economy crumbles under the weight of loneliness, we are finding the opposite to be true.
The battle is a bit uphill from here, it would seem, to combat this epidemic. However, the first step is acknowledging how critical it is to choose to invest in social connections. For many of us, we are afforded the opportunity to engage with our communities, but we don’t because of other priorities or barriers. That must change; we must start prioritizing this vital part of our lives. For others, like elderly individuals who can’t leave home, people who have disabilities, or those with limited means, we must come to them because they lack the ability to engage in the same ways. Finding ways to build infrastructures that support social connections is vital to the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens.
Ignoring our need for social connection is like trying to grow fruit on a plant but forgetting to water or fertilize it. It’s dying, so let’s water and feed it and see what grows.