Loneliness. It’s an empty, isolated feeling familiar feeling to all of us. No one is exempt; rich or poor, young or old, it’s a global, phenomenal problem we are facing often provoking negative, if not destructive behavior in our society today.
Many single people today naturally wish they had a spouse or ‘significant other.’ “If only I was married, I wouldn’t feel so lonely anymore,” they reason. Yet, at the same time, many married people feel like their husband or wife doesn’t seem to care anymore about their feelings. They used to talk and communicate, but barely anymore, if any at all. Ironically, some married people no longer feel married and wish they were single, while many single people today wish they were married in order to escape loneliness.
Additionally, the crushing effects of divorce, the death of a family member or close friend, chronic health problems, disability, job loss, financial struggles, a sense of embarrassment, all can contribute to ‘feelings of isolation’ as if God has somehow ‘forgotten us,’ or worse yet, maybe ‘doesn’t care.’ As a result, there currently exists an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ pervading our culture and society today like never before in history.
Nearly half of all Americans today say they are lonely. Why is that so, and what are the consequences?
Here’s everything you need to know:
“How is Loneliness Defined?”
Loneliness isn’t determined by the actual number of friends or social contacts a person has. Social science researchers define loneliness as the emotional state created when people have fewer social contacts and meaningful relationships than they would like — relationships that make them feel known and understood. Essentially, if you feel lonely, you are lonely. One out of two Americans now falls into this category. In a recent study of 20,000 people by the health insurance company Cigna, about 47 percent of respondents reported often feeling alone or left out. Thirteen percent said there were zero people who knew them well.
The U.S. is not unique in this respect: Loneliness is reaching epidemic levels throughout the developed world. Forty-one percent of Britons say the TV or a pet is their main source of company, and the U.K. has created a ¬cabinet-¬level minister to deal with the problem of rampant loneliness. A government study in Japan found that more than half a million people spent at least six months at home with no outside contact. “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “It was loneliness.”
“What Impact Does Loneliness Have?”
It makes people sick. A 2010 study by Brigham Young University found that loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years, about the same impact as being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Other studies have found connections between loneliness and a wide range of health problems, including increased risk for heart attacks, stroke, and cancer. Lonely people are more likely to suffer from insomnia, depression, and drug abuse. They are also more likely to suffer from more rapid cognitive decline in old age.
“Why is Physical Health Affected?”
Stress. The feeling of loneliness, scientists say, is an evolutionary phenomenon. Just as hunger encourages animals to find food, loneliness forces humans to seek out the protection of the group, increasing the chances of survival. To produce this behavior, loneliness triggers the release of stress hormones, particularly cortisol. In small doses, these hormones help make solitary humans more alert to danger. But they damage health if the body is exposed to them over long periods of time. Stress leads to high blood pressure, increased inflammation, and a weakened immune system. Without an emotional support network, lonely people are also more likely to slip into unhealthy habits, such as substance abuse, overeating, and not exercising. For seniors, isolation can be especially deadly in the event of an emergency like a bad fall or a heart attack. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” said John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who studied loneliness at the University of Chicago.
“Is Isolation More Common?”
It appears to be. Between 1985 and 2009, the average American’s social network shrank by more than one-third, defined by the number of close confidants. One reason for this is the aging of the Baby Boomers, who had fewer children and more divorces than their parents, leaving many without companions in their old age. About 1 in 11 Americans age 50 or older doesn’t have a spouse, romantic partner, or living child. That’s roughly 8 million people. One in six Boomers lives alone. The increasingly transient nature of work is also making people lonely, as Americans leave family and hometowns behind in search of paychecks. Surprisingly, young people are actually most at risk of being lonely in modern society. In the Cigna study, Generation Z members ages 18 to 22 and Millennials ages 23 to 37 scored the highest for loneliness.
“Why Are so Many Young People Lonely Today in Our Social Networked Technology?”
Americans are getting married and having children later in life; there are now more single people in the U.S. than at any time in the past 140 years. Not being part of a regular workplace also plays a role, with freelancers and “gig economy” workers reporting higher levels of loneliness. And despite seemingly infinite opportunities to connect online, social media may actually be making the problem worse. Scrolling through an endless stream of curated photos of parties, vacations, family gatherings, and weddings may increase feelings of being left out or dissatisfaction with one’s own life.
In one study of Americans ages 19 to 32, the top 25 percent of social media users were twice as likely to report feeling lonely as the people using it least. Some researchers say loneliness began becoming widespread long before the internet, when the Industrial Revolution broke up tightly knit agricultural communities. “I do think it speaks to one of the dilemmas of modern, mobile society,” said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College. “As we gain the freedom to become whatever we want to be, we’ve lost the sense of belonging.”
“Alone, Angry — and Intensely Partisan”
Some researchers believe that America’s increasingly polarized politics — and the partisan viciousness on social media — may be at least partly the product of increasing loneliness. Psychiatrists Richard S. Schwartz and Dr. Jacqueline Olds describe loneliness as the “elephant in the room” of American politics. Social isolation, they say, makes people less empathetic and more likely to view the world in terms of “us” and “them.” “I think comparing notes in a civil way is the antidote to a polarized society in which we don’t understand a point of view other than our own,” Olds says. “If we are so lonely that we have no one to compare notes with, we tend to become more polarized.” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska believes that Americans are turning to political tribalism for the sense of community they used to get from simple connection to those around them. “The local, human relationships that anchored political talk have shriveled up,” Sasse writes in his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal. “Alienated from each other, and uprooted from places we can call home, we’re reduced to shrieking.”
Feelings of loneliness can turn into fear of loneliness. And fear of loneliness can turn into avoidance of loneliness. And then eventually you’re sending 1,000 texts a day, drowning your feelings in alcohol or video games, or hooking up with people you don’t even know—all because you don’t want to be alone in the world for even a few minutes. Or maybe you do the opposite—shut yourself in your room and ignore the world entirely to avoid being connected to people. Once you feel lonely, it’s nearly impossible to get out of your loneliness, because you are…alone.
A proverb says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can fully share its joy.” (Proverbs 14:10) We are each fundamentally separated from all other humans, and although we can understand each other to a certain extent, we will still feel that separation. No one fully understands what it’s like to be you. Regardless of how you react to it, loneliness can be a big, painful problem for all of us.
“What Really Causes Our Sense of Loneliness?”
Ever wonder what we were made for? The Bible explains that God wired us for personal connection, for community. Often we idealize romantic relationships and even friendships, thinking that if we only found the right person, we’d never be lonely again. But loneliness can be found even in happily married men and women. Not only were we wired for connection with other humans, we were wired for connection with God. Even wealth, achievement, and honor are not enough to keep us from loneliness. Pop culture is full of examples; rampant divorce, suicide, and drug use litter the landscape of Hollywood. There are also stories in the Bible that talk both about people who had it all and still felt lonely and about people who had nothing but found what they needed by approaching God.
Solomon was a king of Israel to whom God granted immense wisdom. And he literally had it all: huge piles of gold, a giant palace, and hundreds of wives and concubines. You’d think Solomon would have been the most content man on earth! But he wrote a book about how pointless life is: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11) You can hear his loneliness and desperation in that statement!
In comparison, one day when Jesus was walking through a town, he was met by a man with leprosy. Lepers were ten times more scary then than now; people were terrified of catching it. Lepers were outcasts and rejects, often abandoned by friends and family to beg on street corners just to have something to eat. Picture this particular leper sitting in the dust and dirt, ignored by everyone who passed by. He had no one to turn to and not a penny to his name. He got up, walked up to Jesus, fell on his knees in the street, and asked to be made clean. Jesus touched the leper – a person who had likely not been touched by another human being in years – and healed him. The now socially-acceptable man was ecstatic and went around telling everyone about it, although Jesus had instructed him otherwise. His life suddenly had joy and meaning, despite the fact that he still had nothing and no one. What changed this former outcast’s world so entirely? Just one brief interaction with Jesus.
We weren’t made to be lonely
We were made to have a relationship with God.
It’s the one thing that can bring us out of our loneliness, because it’s the connection we were made to have. That one interaction with Jesus, who is God, brought meaning, comfort and joy to the life of that leper, while all the jewels, gold, and women in the world didn’t bring meaning to Solomon’s life. Having a personal relationship with God changes everything; it is the answer to our loneliness problem.
That said, does having a relationship with God protect us from feelings of loneliness for the rest of our lives? No. Simply put, the system is broken. It’s a complicated story you can learn more about here, but our world is a damaged place. We are separated from God by our sin, our desire to live apart from God. In this world, we cannot experience life the way it was meant to be, without loneliness or evil or sorrow or fear.
So now what?
Despite the fact loneliness is a reality of being human with no immediate cure, there are two things that can help in the here and now:
“Community: How to Deal with Loneliness”
Because we were created for connection, a big part of dealing with loneliness is to be in community. No friend will save you from being lonely ever again, but when you have people around you who care about you for who you are (not for your body, skills, money, or ability to hold alcohol) it can help you see you are not really alone.
In fact, science backs this up: the more friends you have and the more connected you are, the better your health. All you have to do is Google “Health Benefits of Friendship.” Brene Brown, a researcher and expert on human interaction, explains it this way: “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Sharing your life with people who love you helps you to see outside your own perspective and bring meaning to your life that you can remember in lonely moments.
“Someone Who Deeply Understands Your Loneliness”
Sometimes it’s hard to understand how believing in a God that you can’t see could possibly help you feel less lonely on a Friday night. But the Bible says God will never abandon his children, and he is near to all who call on his name. God loves you and desires relationship with you. He wants you to come to him when you are lonely!
Not only that, he understands. When Jesus was going through the worst hours of his life and about to be crucified, his friends abandoned him and even pretended they didn’t know him. Jesus knows what it is like to be a lonely human. The Bible says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) What would it feel like to know in your deepest moment of loneliness, you are not alone? The God who made you is with you and will never leave you!
“You Can Have That!”
The sin that separated us from living in a world without loneliness is what keeps us from God now. No matter how good you are or how hard you try, you cannot overcome that separation. God sent Jesus to earth in order to restore our relationship with him – the Bible says that Jesus came to bind up the brokenhearted. Jesus, the perfect son of God, died for your sins so that you could be clean like the leper; you are no longer an outcast or a reject but a child of God. Tim Keller, a pastor and author, said this about how God views us: “The only eyes in the universe that can see you to the bottom, love you to the skies.” God sees your worst moments and loves you all the same; he wants you to come to him.
Would you like to start a relationship with God and let him help you in your moments of loneliness? You can do that right now by believing him and accepting him into your life through prayer, which is simply talking to God. God knows you and your heart, so the words don’t matter as much as the attitude in which you say them.
Here’s a suggested prayer:
“Lord Jesus, I want to know You personally. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life to You and ask You to come in as my Savior and Lord. Take control of my life. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Thank You for being with me and for saying that You will never leave me. Please help me to feel Your presence, to trust You are with me even when I may feel at times they it seems You are not. Help me to trust more in the rock-solid, unchanging promises You have given us in Your Word, than my fickle feelings which seem to come and go. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.”