Health & Fitness

How to Stop Being Lonely, According to the Surgeon General

The Surgeon General of the United States is sounding the alarm about the growing epidemic of loneliness in this country. Vivek Hallegere Murthy’s just released public health advisory compiles a ton of research that indicates that social isolation is more than a philosophical problem; it has tangible, measurable effects on both mental and physical health, and it’s deadly.

According to the report, loneliness leads to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The effect of isolation on mortality is similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s actually worse for your health than being obese or physically inactive. In other words, if you want to be a fat smoker, you’d better have a ton of friends.

Not only is friendlessness leading to adverse health condition, it’s turning us into loners and weirdoes. Social connection is a basic human need, and as we eschew it in favor of Instagram and Candy Crush, our trust in institutions and one another decreases, leading to further polarization and discontent.

Overall, this is not a cheery report, but it lays out a bulletproof case that we should be taking this issue more seriously and taking steps as a society to stem the damage that’s been done. While an individual can’t do much about broad historical and cultural trend, you can take action to combat loneliness in your own life and the lives of those around you.

Why are we so lonely?

The surgeon general’s report paints a dark picture of an increasingly isolated populace. Even before COVID forced us inside, Americans were staying single longer, having smaller families, and disengaging from religious groups, clubs, labor unions, and other sources of social interactions. In 2018, just 16% of Americans said they felt very attached to their local community.

In 2003, the average amount of time spent with friends socially was around 60 minutes a day. In 2020 it was 20 minutes. That’s 20 additional hours per month spent alone instead of with friends. The trend is seen across all age groups, but it’s especially pronounced among young people. Whether it’s due to choosing the quasi-friendships that come from social media over real interaction, or just really impressive video games, Americans between the ages of 15-24 report having 70% less social interaction with their friends than kids did 20 years ago.

While factors like health, socioeconomic status and just not liking other people play into an individual’s loneliness, as a society, the infrastructure that supports community—parks, libraries, public transportation—is disappearing in response to broad social and cultural changes. As you’d probably guess, a primary driver of social isolation is technology. The report notes that while online connectedness can be a source of social support, it also “displaces in-person engagement, monopolizes our attention, reduces the quality of our interactions, and even diminishes our self-esteem.”

How to stop being lonely, according to the surgeon general

The surgeon general’s report lays out an ambitious national strategy (without a source of funding or any tangible public policy) that describes how schools, healthcare workers, government officials, and others can combat the systemic causes of society’s loneliness, but it also discusses how just-regular-folks-like-us can conquer isolation in our own lives.

I’ve broken out what I consider the most actionable and relevant tips below.

  • Educate yourself: The connection between mental and physical health and connectedness is real. It’s supported by evidence and it affects everyone. Understanding and taking this seriously is a great first step to doing something about it. Start by reading the surgeon general’s report. It’s a fascinating (if bleak) document that is backed up by scientific research. Your tax dollars paid for it, so take advantage.
  • Set time aside for socializing: According to the report, you should “Take time each day to reach out to a friend or family member.” So go into your contacts and send a text to someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile—the government says you should.
  • Put your phone down: Don’t look at your phone while you’re talking to someone. It’s rude, and according to the surgeon general, phones and other distractions decrease “the quality of the time you spend with others.”
  • Diversify your circle: According to the report, we should strive to “actively engage with people of different backgrounds and experiences.” Even if it’s just because they eat different food and/or have charming accents.
  • Volunteer: Community service is a great way to meet people and feel connected to your community, so hit the soup kitchen or nursing home and do some good.
  • Be a joiner: I’m committed to actually following these steps, but this one will be hard. I don’t like random collections of other people at all, but the report recommends you join “fitness, religious, hobby, professional, and community service organizations to foster a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose,” which is pretty much my worst nightmare.
  • Cut down on things that disconnect you: Technology can be insidious. It provides something like the feeling of social connection with ease, but social media connections and the like aren’t actually real. So try to avoid “excessive social media use” and “disproportionate time in front of screens instead of people.”
  • Reach out to others in crisis: If things are getting bad and you’re feeling cut off and isolated, reach out to people who might give a shit—friends, family, genial bartenders, etc. You might be surprised at how many people are feeling the same. About half of Americans report feeling lonely.
  • Talk to your doctor: As our understanding and acceptance of the connection between physical and mental health and connectedness grows, health care professionals will hopefully take a bigger role in solving the problem. It might feel weird to tell your doctor you’re feeling lonely, but they may be able to help you mitigate the health risks associated with isolation, or recommend a therapist of some kind.
  • Engage politically: I don’t like participating in the democratic process if it can be avoided in any way, but many people find it fulfilling and interesting to engage in school board meetings, local government hearings, and other forms of civic engagement.
  • Don’t be an asshole: The surgeon general advises that you “reflect the core values of connection in how you approach others in conversation and through the actions you take,” but I read that as “stop being an asshole.” Point blank: Many Americans are socially isolated because they are jerks, but they can be less jerky if they ask themselves, “How might kindness change this situation? What would it look like to treat others with respect? How can I be of service? How can I reflect my concern for and commitment to others?”

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