Scientists contend that loneliness is a prevalent and serious public health problem impacting health, well-being, and longevity, especially with increased remote working, social distancing, and quarantine restrictions. And it affects some age groups worse than others. I sat down with Dr. Vivek Murthy—the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under Obama and Coronavirus Task Force member under the Biden Presidential Administration. Murthy has been an outspoken voice for emotional well-being and attention to what he calls the loneliness public health crisis which is partly created by the workplace.
In his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Murthy describes loneliness as a global epidemic. He said that it’s associated with a reduction in lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also has a profound effect on how we show up in the workplace, school, and our communities. A landmark research study led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, conducted at Brigham Young University in 2010, found that the mortality impact of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness Across The Lifespan
Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine published a new study on November 10, 2020, in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. They wanted to identify the psychological and environmental factors that lead to loneliness in different age groups. They employed a web-based survey of 2,843 participants, ages 20 to 69 years, from across the United States between April 10, 2019, and May 10, 2019.
The researchers discovered that lower levels of empathy and compassion, smaller social networks, not having a spouse or a partner, and greater sleep disturbances were consistent predictors of loneliness across all ages. Lower social self-efficacy—or the ability to reflect confidence in exerting control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment—and higher anxiety were associated with worse loneliness in all age decades, except for 60-year-olds. They found that loneliness levels were highest among 20-year-olds, peaked among 40-year-olds, and were lowest among 60 year-olds.
The survey suggested that people in their 20s were dealing with high stress and pressure while trying to establish a career and find a life partner. "A lot of people in this decade are also constantly comparing themselves on social media and are concerned about how many likes and followers they have," said Tanya Nguyen, Ph.D., first author of the study. "The lower level of self-efficacy may lead to greater loneliness." People in their 40s start to experience physical challenges and health issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
According to the researchers, "Compassion seems to reduce the level of loneliness at all ages, probably by enabling individuals to accurately perceive and interpret others' emotions along with helpful behavior toward others, and thereby increasing their own social self-efficacy and social networks."
The authors of the University of California study recommend that future intervention and prevention efforts should consider stage-of-life issues: "There is a need for a personalized and nuanced prioritizing of prevention targets in different groups of people.” For example, a new study conducted before the pandemic and published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that seniors who joined group exercise classes reported less loneliness and social isolation. As the classes continued virtually, early results suggest the online versions also are effective.
You might think, with all the electronic devices at our fingertips, loneliness is the last thing workers would suffer from. When I asked Murthy about that idea, he said, “There can be an assumption that because you’re virtually connected through social media, email, or text that somehow that protects you from loneliness. Sometimes it can, but not always. What matters when it comes to loneliness is the quality of your connections with people. Technology can sometimes be a quality connection, and sometimes it can detract from the quality connection. It can lead us to substitute lower quality interactions from what used to be higher quality in-person interactions. The kind of conversations you have via text are different qualitatively from the conversations you have in person or on the phone when you can hear someone’s voice and understand their tone, feelings, and intentions.”
Murthy recommends carving out time to be fully present with people in our lives on a regular basis. “That could be making sure family dinner is done free of technology or talking with good friends when we’re not distracted by our cell phones,” he said. “The second thing is service—a powerful door out of loneliness whether it’s helping a colleague at work or volunteering for a cause in the community. We not only forge a connection with another person in that moment but remind ourselves that we have value and worth to add to society, which is powerful and helpful in strengthening our connection to self.”
As far as the workplace goes, Murthy suggests businesses need to recognize that the loneliness epidemic affects their bottom line and that when employees can’t share that they’re lonely because of shame, it adds insult to injury. “Whenever we struggle with a problem we can’t share, it further isolates us,” he explained. “In the workplace, there is a growing body of data from the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton School of Business that this is really common among people in the workplace. When workers are lonely, it takes a toll on their engagement which in turn impacts their productivity and creativity. It also affects how others see them in a negative way. If you’re a member or leader of an organization, it makes sense to recognize a couple of things: the data shows that many people in your workplace are probably struggling with loneliness and that loneliness comes with consequences, not just for social interaction but concrete outputs that an organization cares about such as productivity and creativity.”