To many people a conference on loneliness doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world. Yet, there are many folks, including myself, who find this part of the human existence to be quite important. So much so that dozens of us met for an afternoon of panels at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City on Wednesday, May 9. Put on by the UnLonely Project, attendees included those from colleges, major corporations (such as Prudential and News Corp), The New York Times, and organizations that cater to seniors and military veterans. Co-chaired by Jeremy Nobel of Harvard University Medical School and Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, the conference presented three panels.
The first focused on signs of optimism, looking at some promising attempts to combat loneliness. For example, AARP in Georgia creates activities to connect seniors to the arts (in this case, painting). Prudential Financial asks questions about loneliness as part of their view of employees' health.
The second panel looked at some of the obstacles faced in dealing with loneliness. This included issues with home care workers who work in isolation with ill patients and attempts with students at New York University (NYU) to find connections when starting school.
The final panel looked at whether innovations offered can be catalysts for large-scale changes in combating loneliness. Are there models that can be enlarged to tackle this issue? While the question has no definitive answer, panelists agreed it’s imperative we try.
The panels covered a range of groups affected: business, military, and seniors. But my personal interest in loneliness is with college students and I came away with a lot to think about. I thought about my experiences in college and grad school. I often felt as though I didn’t fit in, which left me feeling quite lonely. There is still so much stigma attached to loneliness that it spurs a basic question: How do you break through with those who may not want to identify as lonely? It’s possible an answer to this is to speak about connection and belonging with students as opposed to using that seemingly taboo word, lonely.
Allison Smith, who works with student health programs at NYU, raised another useful point. She spoke of how important it is for individuals to take the lead in discussions with loneliness. Universities should allow for places for this to happen but not force students down a specific path. This reminded me of the value of student-led mental health groups such as Active Minds. These organizations, and not college administrations, should be leading discussions on loneliness.
I also appreciated Smith’s comments on allowing places on campus for those who don’t fit in to traditional clubs and organizations. I know that in college I would’ve appreciated more options for people like me who didn’t identify with much of anyone at my rural, conservative university.
There were so many good points made throughout a half day’s conference that I hope the program is lengthier next year. Loneliness is a part of the human condition that is being brought into the forefront in our society. Yet there’s still a lot of discussion that needs to happen so that, as Jeremy Nobel said, we move this conversation from knowledge to action. The UnLonely Conference is a good start.
Odds are that you will feel lonely at some point in your life. Statistics vary widely on what percentage of the population regularly or frequently feels lonely, but it appears the number is between 25-45% of Americans.
The health effects are serious as well. Being lonely over long periods of time is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Those who are chronically lonely have the same mortality rate as those who are obese.
Even if you aren't dealing with loneliness, chances are you know someone who is. And their well-being (both mentally and physically) can have an impact on you. As you grow older, you will likely lose more family and friends, and therefore may find yourself isolated. I don’t say this to cause fear, but to convince those of you who want to turn away from the importance of this issue. As life expectancy increases, it's logical to conclude that the possibility of having fewer friends and family will come into play.
Loneliness is also an issue for youth. There are many possible reasons for this (which I will explore in future posts) but for those of you who are young and reading this, or who have children in their teens or early twenties, it's something to be aware of.
What this comes down to is that even if you aren't feeling lonely, there's a good chance you will at some point in your life. Or someone you care about and love probably is dealing with loneliness. And if after all those numbers you’re still the type of person who says, “I only care about the bottom line,” then know that this is a health problem that costs us significant amounts of money due to premature deaths and unhappy workers who aren't as productive.
Loneliness isn’t about the number of connections, it’s about the quality of them. For me, I don’t have a need for a great deal of relationships—one or two people who I see frequently will suffice. However, it’s more important that they’re connections where I empathize with the person deeply and see them regularly. Thus, in my case, a close relationship with a partner can suffice.
Loneliness is different than being alone, then, in that I can be around others—at a party or at work—and still feel lonely if those connections aren’t meeting my social needs. However, I can be alone and not feel lonely. In fact, I often am. When my partner is out with her friends I rarely feel lonely because my social needs are, at large, being met. Thus, I can be alone and not feel lonely.
As some readers may know, loneliness is a topic I'm very interested in and continue to speak and write about. For the next few entries I want to go through some basics with it.
What is loneliness?
It’s interesting how in looking at the definition of loneliness at Merriam-Webster online, it gives definitions that don’t jive with mine. M-W.com defines “lonely” as:
1. a: being without company
b: cut off from others
2. not frequented by human beings
3. sad from being alone
4. producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation
While I don’t discount any of those definitions, the more I study loneliness, the more I begin to side with the meaning given by John Cacioppo, the late social neuroscientist. He wrote, “Loneliness is defined as a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships.” In other words, loneliness is what you feel when you want connections of a certain type (however that is defined by you) and you don’t have them.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.